IN Rural Reach

Dylan Peterson

In recent years, we’ve seen an increased focus on rural communities in the United States. Authors such as Sarah Smarsh and J.D. Vance discuss their experiences growing up as rural Americans and consider the challenges facing their hometowns today. For those of us who seek to communicate and engage with rural populations, these insights can make the difference in whether an outreach effort succeeds or fails. No two experiences or communities are the same, and personal accounts should always be taken with a grain of salt. However, through their stories and others, we can begin to answer the question: What does it mean to be a rural American in 2019?

To be a rural American means coming from a wildly diverse group of communities. However, these communities are commonly lumped into one basket, which can lead to false conclusions. While it is true that rural America is largely white, the economic, cultural and historical experiences of its residents vary greatly. This might seem obvious: Why would the experiences of a rural American in the heart of big sky country Montana be the same as those of an individual living in a bayou in Louisiana? Still, from political debates to daily conversation, we too often use “rural” to describe a uniform group of values and ideals, when it should be more accurately viewed as a term relating to population density or geographic location.

One thing we do know, to be a rural American is to be resilient.  As more young people move to cities in search of higher paying job opportunities, rural communities find themselves the victims of brain drain. Health care availability is on the decline, with rural hospitals closing or consolidating nationwide. However, rural communities are adapting to these challenges in innovative and sustainable ways.  E-commerce distribution centers are being opened in rural areas, creating jobs to replace those lost as manufacturing moves to other countries. Rural start-ups also have a higher success rate than their urban counterparts. Indeed, rural communities are solving their own service issues through telemedicine and community action programs. Perhaps it’s for these reasons that many people living in rural areas express a greater sense of community helpfulness in times of crisis.

Finally, to be a rural American is to be eager for change. Many rural communities, still recovering from the 2008 recession, have expressed feelings of being abandoned or ignored. Although economic improvements have been recorded in some rural communities in 2017 and 2018, others are still seeking a path to recovery.

For public relations professionals, we know we cannot assume a shared experience among rural communities. There’s always more to learn, but understanding some of the common values that studies and personal experiences have shown us can help us learn how to both speak and listen to all of our audiences.

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