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Florida to fund outreach to bolster response to census

TALLAHASSEE — The search will soon be under way in Florida for every Hispanic, farmworker, college student and member of other historically hard-to-count groups in a marketing blitz aimed at improving the 2010 census count.

Billions of federal dollars hinge on an accurate count. But with minority and transient populations on the rise in Florida, state officials say it will be harder than ever to get the count right. A mix of old and new media — TV, radio, billboards and social networking sites — will all be employed in the effort.

"Florida will be facing major challenges in the 2010 census," said Clyde Diao, Gov. Charlie Crist's census liaison. He cited factors such as poverty, rising unemployment, language barriers, a growing minority population and a housing foreclosure crisis that has displaced many people from their homes.

Floridians will soon be bombarded with messages reminding them to fill out census forms, part of a $2.1 million outreach.

A total of 31 public relations and marketing firms have teamed up with grass roots organizations to seek all or part of the money. Crist's office is expected to divvy up the contract Wednesday.

"The hard-to-count populations have a fear of government. They don't necessarily want to be counted," said Ayla Anderson, an analyst in Crist's office. "So we have to incorporate trusted voices in the community to ensure that they will fill out their census questionnaires or answer their door when the enumerator comes knocking."

In the next few weeks, every Florida household will get a census form in the mail. In March, census takers will begin knocking on doors, looking for people who didn't respond.

In April, the state's marketing blitz begins.

The state's ever-shiftng demographics saw continued growth in the nonwhite population over the past decade, from 34.6 percent in the 2000 census to 39.2 percent in 2007.

The state has identified 10 groups to be strategically targeted by marketers. They are American Indians, Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans, college students, disabled people, Hispanics, the homeless, part-time residents, migrant farmworkers and rural residents. In addition, blacks and Hispanics in South Florida will be targeted separately, bringing the total of targeted audiences to 12.

The state says those groups are identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as living in areas with low mail response rates.

In the last census in 2000, Florida's census response rate was 63 percent, below the national average of 67 percent and at the bottom among the 10 most populous states. A firm that played a prominent role in the previous two census counts, the Florida Association of Broadcasters, is again seeking to do the work.

The group has teamed with Volunteer Florida, a statewide network of grass roots organizations, to get the word out this time.

"I'm certainly hopeful," said Pat Roberts, president of the broadcasters group. "There is nobody that understands the importance of the head count more than the broadcasters, because it affects our ratings."

The broadcasters applied for all 12 components of the outreach. So did Ron Sachs Communications, a prominent PR firm that has teamed up with an array of community organizations, from the Florida Farm Bureau to the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in South Miami-Dade.

In its proposal, Sachs urged the Governor's Office to hire one vendor to run the entire program, warning that choosing multiple vendors could lead to "inconsistent results and haphazard messaging" and would be difficult to manage.

A year ago, Crist created the 45-member Complete Count Committee, which helped to oversee creation of the marketing plan. A five-member evaluation team will rate the applicants based on their plans and how efficiently they would spend the money.

The team includes two Miamians: Luis De Rosa of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of South Florida and Horacio Soberon-Ferrer of the Alliance for Aging. The others are Bill Peeler, a Lake City veteran; Davin Suggs of the Florida Association of Counties; and Hue Reynolds of the state Department of Education.

It's common in highly competitive contract awards for an unsuccessful bidder to challenge the state's decision. Such a protest in the census outreach program would delay the outreach effort and hinder the state's efforts to improve the count.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

ON THE WEB

Making the count

The state's official census Web site is sunshinecensus2010.com.

Florida to fund outreach to bolster response to census 01/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 9:49pm]
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