Communication Strategies for Local Government Professionals

Communication Strategies for Local Government Professionals

Susan is the Public Information Director for the Town of Cary. She can be reached by email, susan (dot) moran (at) townofcary (dot) org.

Building & Maintaining Mutually Beneficial Relationships

  1. Always tell the truth.
  2. Be accurate, timely, and complete.
  3. Get on the same page internally before going external.
  4. Treat the Court of Public Opinion as seriously as the Court of Law.
  5. Know your publics, monitoring them regularly for attitudes, issues, and errors then doing something about it including and especially altering your approach as necessary to achieve desired outcomes.
  6. Communicate early, often, and consistently.  Rumor and distrust will fill the vacuum created by a lack of communication, so bring publics along with you as you learn things.  Don’t wait until the novel is written to let them read it.
  7. When you feel the urge to stop or postpone communicating, that’s a sure sign you need to communicate and soon.
  8. Shape the debate through pro-activity by breaking the news, telling your story first, especially when you’ve got a problem, made a mistake.
  9. Ask for permission every time; there’s no good will savings account to draw from.
  10. Give face time.
  11. Show and tell.
  12. Say you’re sorry.
  13. Smart and good looking.  Your best spokesperson may not be in the C-Suite.
  14. Write and use communications plans that include key messages and measurable objectives.
  15. You already have a reputation, relationship, and image.  What are they and are they what you want?

KEY MESSAGES

INTRODUCTION

Key messages are broad yet meaningful statements that articulate the organization’s position or perspective on the high level issues surrounding a communications topic.   Key messages go beyond basic facts and speak to commitments, beliefs, values, motivations, perspectives, and other aspects of the organization’s culture that are driving an action or position.

Key messages should be developed for all external communications—scripts, articles, comments to the media, professional presentations, letters, e-mails.  Typically, there are between two and four key messages for any issue.

DEVELOPING KEY MESSAGES

  1. Look beyond the facts and at a very high level to determine which of the following (or other) big picture issues are primary in the matter at hand:
    1. Safety, health, welfare
    2. Quality of life
    3. Protecting/Impacting the environment
    4. Responsiveness
    5. Pro-action vs. Reaction
    6. Following/Supporting/Enforcing laws, ordinances, regulations
    7. Spending money/using resources wisely
    8. Secrecy/Lack of trustworthiness
    9. Employee performance
  2. For each big picture issue, review the General Messages of the Organization, the Town’s Mission Statement, Statement of Values, Council Goals & Initiatives for relevant ideas
  3. For each issue, draft a compound or complex sentence that clearly and completely represents the organization’s statement on the issue
    1. Be confident, clear, and definitive
    2. Express regret or sympathy or apologize if necessary
    3. Use “we” statements
  4. Run your draft key messages by the PIO or DPIO
  5. Memorize each key message you’ve developed
  6. If for an interview, do not let the interview end without delivering the key messages

SAMPLE KEY MESSAGES

Red Light Cameras

July 12, 2007

Cary has 3 goals for the program: (1) reduce accidents; (2) help keep traffic flowing well by not allowing intersections to be blocked; (3) economically and efficiently expand police’s ability to enforce traffic safety laws 24/7. 

While Cary’s program has always been about safety and never about making money, we’re glad to report that it’s operating at a level that does allow for a meaningful financial contribution to be made to our public schools.

Reclaimed Water Misconnection

August 2, 2007

There’s nothing more important to us than the health and safety of our citizens, and we’re glad to report that there should be no long-term health risks to any of our families who drank the water.

We regret the inconvenience and concern this situation is causing our reclaimed customers, and we appreciate everyone’s support as we do what’s necessary to ensure that everything’s functioning properly.

Regarding lawsuits, that’s not our focus; we’re working hard to do everything we can to find out what happened and do whatever’s necessary to keep it from happening again.

Cary Growth

August 16, 2007

Cary‘s moderate yet healthy growth rate is right on track with the rolling average target set by the previous Council in 2003.

People are drawn to Cary because of our reputation for providing great services and a high quality of life, which includes doing a good job of planning for and servicing new homes and businesses.

Questioning the Town’s Application and Interpretation of Procedures

August 16, 2007

At the Town of Cary, following processes and regulations is something we take very seriously, pay very close attention to, and are generally very good at.

As we do whenever concerns are raised, we will conduct a thorough review of this project to ensure that the matter was handled appropriately, and we’ll provide a thorough response to questions once our analysis is complete.

GENERAL MESSAGES FOR THE TOWN OF CARY

Refer to these concepts when developing specific key messages:

  1. Our organization—the Town of Cary—is proactive.  We plan and manage for tomorrow.
  2. The Town of Cary has/seeks/values a high level of citizen involvement/input/ participation/feedback.
  3. The Town of Cary is committed to preserving and protecting our finite natural resources.  We are committed to preserving the environment.  We lead all other cities in NC in preserving and protecting natural resources.
  4. Our organization is efficient and economical—Town services are a great bargain for the price.  We are lean.  We are fiscally sound, financially very well managed.
  5. Our operations are open/transparent.  We have nothing to hide.  We follow the rule of law, support the democratic process, believe in the necessity of government-—that there are things we can accomplish better as a group than on our own as individual property owners.
  6. Our organization employs the best (responsive, effective, professional, expert, innovative, caring) staff in all of local government.
  7. Our organization adheres to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, fairness, truth, and accuracy. We conduct our professional lives in the public interest.
  8. Cary, NC has the highest quality of life of any place in the state, thanks in large measure to the work of our organization.
  9. Cary, NC is safe, consistently ranked as the safest large city in North Carolina and in the top 10 of safest cities in America.
  10. Cary is an attractive community.
  11. Cary is the Technology Town of NC.

PRACTICAL WRITING TIPS

  1. Fight the blank page by starting with simple sentences to list each point.
  2. Answer yes/no questions with “yes” or “no,” then explain.
  3. Avoid “depends.”
  4. Use first person active voice.
  5. Include key messages as well as facts
  6. Only say what you know:  Never: “I think,” “we believe,” “I’m not sure, but…” “maybe”
  7. Proof from the bottom up and with another set of eyes.
  8. Words matter, so make every one count.
  9. Organize and present the points using the inverted pyramid:

MAKING PUBLIC PRESENTATIONS

Interacting with citizens–whether as an invited speaker or as the host of an information session—is an important part of ensuring the success of many Town projects. How these interactions are managed by staff can have a significant effect on citizen understanding of and appreciation for the complexities surrounding projects, especially given that most citizens lack familiarity with the regulations governing municipalities as well as the specific processes employed by the Town of Cary.  In making public presentations, staff should work to earn the group’s confidence, trust, and respect by representing the Town professionally, articulately, and courteously and making citizens feel that their comments and concerns are being heard.  The following checklist is offered in hopes of guiding staff towards delivering effective presentations.

BEFORE THE MEETING:

  • Verify your knowledge of the Town’s position on all the issues that might come up at the meeting.
  • Make sure the PIO knows about the meeting.
  • Generate a list of likely frequently asked questions (FAQ’s) with concise answers.
  • Design and launch (or update) a web section on the project that includes, at a minimum:
  • An explanation of how the project fits into Council’s goals, how the project will improve the quality of life for Cary citizens
  • A project timetable
  • A project description
  • FAQ’s
  • A contact email and telephone number
  • Write/outline your presentation.
  • With groups who have already expressed concerns about the project, avoid high-tech presentations, especially those that require you to operate cumbersome equipment and cause you to have to dim lights or use a microphone.
  • ALWAYS spend a few minutes at the beginning getting everyone at the same point by providing background information.
  • Push the Web as a great resource for more information.
  • Make sure that your presentation fits your audience.  The words you choose should be easily understood—not filled with technical terms, acronyms, jargon.
  • Meet with everyone on the project team to review/rehearse the presentation.
  • Get your business cards together for distribution at the meeting.
  • Prepare maps, charts, and other displays as needed.
  • Avoid white backgrounds
  • Use contrasting colors
  • Orient displays for TV (landscape as opposed to portrait): 3 units high by 4 units long
  • Prepare a one-page Fact Sheet on the project for your audience.
  • Prepare other handouts as needed.

If you’re hosting the meeting, also:

  • Prepare an agenda.
  • Determine if refreshments will be necessary and make arrangements as needed.
  • Prepare nametags for participants if the event involves mingling between staff and the group or, at a minimum, make sure all staff wears “Town of Cary” lapel pins.
  • Prepare and distribute invitation letters.
  • Advertise the meeting as appropriate:
  • News Release
  • Web Calendar
  • Arrange well in advance for Buildings & Grounds, TS, and Video services.
  • Make sure you have a staff member designated as the event’s “greeter”; the greeter should be stationed at the event’s entrance to explain how the event works, answer questions, and register participants if necessary.
  • If you’re an invited speaker, also:
  • Request an advance copy of the agenda.  If one is not available, find out at a minimum who will be speaking immediately before and after you.
  • Request a list of questions and/or issues that the group wants you to address.
  • Determine exactly how long you are expected to speak to/interact with the group.
  • Get good directions to the meeting place.
  • Confirm the exact time you need to arrive.

DURING THE MEETING:

  • Begin and end according to schedule.
  • Record (or have someone do it for you) any questions or issues that need to be followed up on after the meeting.
  • If it is a structured meeting with an “audience” but no audio system, repeat questions before answering them to be sure that everyone heard the question.
  • Begin with:
  • “Good morning, good evening…”
  • Thank the group for the opportunity to share your important information with them
  • Introduce all speakers, sponsors, team members.
  • Keep coming back to why this project is necessary to improve Cary citizens’ quality of life.
  • NEVER predict or offer your opinion on what Town Council or other government agencies will or might do.
  • Stick to the facts; don’t presume or guess.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to correct misinformation.

AFTER THE MEETING:

  • Immediately notify the PIO of any media contacts.
  • Prepare answers to any new questions.
  • Add them to the web.
  • Forward them to the person(s) who asked and/or to the group.
  • Email key staff any outcomes, issues.
  • Put a mechanism in place to follow through with any promises you may have made to the group, such as updating the web section with new information or creating an electronic mailing list on the issue.

BRIDGING THE GAP

  • Be personable: be a REAL person, not a bureaucrat.
  • Don’t hide behind a table or podium when speaking if you can avoid it.
  • Introduce yourself to people as you encounter them; shake hands.
  • Find something in common to discuss with them, even if it’s the weather.
  • Move towards people when you’re answering their questions.
  • Smile.
  • Give a compliment.
  • Use good manners:  “yes ma’am, no sir, please, thank you…”
  • Whether you’re a man or a woman in a small group meeting, stand up, shake hands, and introduce yourself as new participants arrive.
  • Take off your jacket before speaking to an audience of “regular citizens”; roll up your sleeves.

UNC School of Govt workshop offers guidance on delivering difficult budget news to citizens, elected officials

On Thursday, May 20th, from 12 Noon to 1 p.m., the UNC School of Government will host an important webinar for local governments:

DELIVERING BAD NEWS: HOW TO HELP CITIZENS UNDERSTAND THE REALITIES OF TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES

What will you say to your citizens, constituents, or the media about upcoming budget cuts or tax increases in your community?

This webinar will help elected officials and public administrators be prepared to communicate about these and other challenges currently facing local governments. Presenter Mark Weaver is a national communications advisor with two decades of communication expertise. He is president of Communications Counsel Inc. and a frequent presenter in the School of Government’s Public Executive Leadership Academy.

Topics will include:

  • Application of communication principles of primacy, inoculation, and cognitive dissonance
  • How public officials can effectively respond to public concerns
  • The role of blogs and other social media
  • Points on public disagreement
  • The changing role of traditional news media outlets

Registration for this webinar can be done online. Cost is $95 per site.

For more information, contact Susan Jensen, (919) 962-0940 or sjensen@sog.unc.edu.