Steps to Inform your Communication Plan for Rural Oregon: Focus on Physical Distance, Internet Access, Service Availability   

By Michelle Walch

What challenges and opportunities do PR professionals face in rural communities? The demographics are quite different compared to urban centers. Rural communities often don’t have good internet access, (although that is slowly changing). Physical distance figures into daily lives. Services (school, health care, etc.) are often limited. How do these factors affect your communications plan?  

A little background information on Oregon’s population distribution past and present provides insight. Accessing reliable data and understanding rural and frontier life are key, but not always readily available. This article includes tools, resources, and how to get to know country dwellers, and help put together your PR plan.

Define “rural” – three federal agencies, three different ways

What designates a rural area? Turns out, even government agencies can’t agree on the definition. According to The State of Oregon’s Business Services “Defining Rural vs. Urban” PDF, there are three different federal agencies that define rural and urban. Oregon also has its own method. Oregon Health & Science University adds a definition for “frontier.” To summarize:

  • The U.S. Census describes “urban clusters” as being an incorporated area having a population of more than 2,500 but less than 50,000.  
  • The Office of Management and Budget distinguishes population at the county level. An area with an urban population of 50,000 or more is considered urban. Otherwise, it’s rural. 
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture slices up the methods of the other two agencies to define rural and urban.  
  • The State of Oregon uses a combination of the above methods to define urban and rural populations. Based on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) population, Oregon’s population is 27% rural and 72% urban.
  • Oregon Health & ScienceUniversity’s Office of Rural Health (ORH) uses the above federal agencies criteria and adds a definition for frontier in addition to rural.  Frontier is defined as six people or fewer per mile. Ten of Oregon’s 36 counties are frontier, according to ORH.
  • Rural Health Info states that Oregon is 95,997 square miles and 680,754 live in rural Oregon.

Understanding infrastructure and service availability in rural America

Physical distance and social isolation are big factors in country life. The majority of food production, manufacturing, fiber and fuel comes from rural America. Yet there is a high rate of poverty, less education, less services and less infrastructure in rural areas. Farm Credit discusses the urgent need to address these areas. Rebuild Rural Coalition points out that rural needs are different from urban settings. The Aspen Institute states that accurate data about rural issues is lacking, as well as media coverage being inaccurate about rural realities.

Rural areas are diverse, and rural voices are diverse. A tourist attraction establishment may see policies different from a rancher. While rural America faces the same challenges as those in urban areas, the ways to handle them are different from the city, according to an article in The Conversation. Less population means less services, including health care, mental health services, and legal assistance. 

Going the Distance

Generally, country dwellers have to travel to get to services, which can be a barrier to healthcare access, especially for the elderly (Rural Health Info). A commute could be anywhere from 5 miles to 50 miles, and that takes time, reliable transportation, etc. Occasionally there is public transportation, depending on the area, varying in service hours and days.  

Diverse population considerations

How diverse is Oregon? According to the 2010 Census Quick Facts, 2.2% are Black or African American; 86.7% are white. Racial distribution in rural Oregon is largely Hispanic. For example, 8.5% Hispanic in Clackamas County, and 33% in Malheur, according to the Oregon Health & Science University’s Office of Rural Health Maps.  

What shaped Oregon’s racial demographics? Exclusionary laws established early in the state’s history, later thrown out, established Oregon as a white state.  

Sundown laws thwarted African Americans (and possibly other people of color) from being within the city limits of some towns in Oregon. This attracted white Missouri farmers who came to Oregon in the 1800s. Back home, they couldn’t compete with farmers who were slave owners, with their advantage of involuntary free labor, yet they also didn’t want to be around African Americans.   

Hispanic/Latinx in history goes back to the sixteenth century, with the exploration of California and Oregon. In the 1800s, Mexico became independent from Spain, then the U.S. conquered Mexico’s northern territory, what is now California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and indiginous cultures (Oregon Encyclopedia). A part of the cultural acquisition included Spaniards and Mexicans who worked as vaqueros (cow herders and horsemen) and mule packers. Oregon Encyclopedia states that, as of 1860, 20 Mexicans lived in Oregon City. It’s unclear how many of Latinx origin were actually settled in Oregon prior to 1850. 

Oregon’s racial and ethnic composition is, as of 2010: 78% white, 12% Latinx, 2% African American, 2.1% Multiracial, and 1% other (Oregonlive).

Steps for professional communicators 

When preparing to work with businesses and institutions based in rural and frontier settings, PR professionals (those based in urban areas and/or whose staff has little to no experience living in rural settings) can take the steps typically used: Research, Action planning, Communicate, Evaluate. Keep in mind population, physical distance, and service availability (or lack thereof).

Remember, rural dwellers’ lives may be structured differently than urbanites. A recent PRSA conference outlined steps PR professionals can take to understand the rural population they are serving including attending town halls and meeting local elected officials and community members to understand the concerns of local residents.

Using the above resources can help PR practitioners learn about those living in the countryside. Some general assumptions can be made about income, health, education, access to health services and more. Using these steps to understand rural and frontier lives will help PR firms lay the groundwork for your rural communication plan.