Most local elected officials hear from the residents of the communities they serve when taxes go up or when an unpopular development or project is under review.
Needless to say interactions under these circumstances rarely, if ever, result in positive outcomes. At least not at the outset.
Why? People are upset and reactive as a result of something they perceive to be negative.
To further complicate matters, the local town-by-town coverage in print and online media is dwindling and in some cases, non-existent. More times than not it’s the hot button issues that make it into the press.
The township’s fiscal responsibility, safer neighborhoods and accolades are not being shared with the public.
More and more municipal elected officials are hiring staff or working with experienced public relations and media
relations professionals to share the town’s happenings in newsletters, social media campaigns, at press conferences, as well as any and every method of reaching their constituents.
These elements are most effective in municipal government communications:
- Keeping residents informed is key to opening up positive lines of communication. Local government communications should share with residents what they need – and want – to know about their town. Have you received a grant to build a new playground? Hired a new police officer or promoted a long-time sergeant to police chief? These are all subjects that residents care about and will want to hear about from you.
- Developing two-way communication is paramount. Be open to hear what residents have to say. Listen to their ideas, suggestions and, yes, their criticisms. If your town does not yet have a Facebook page, I would suggest adding one. It really is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to share up-to-the-minute news and receive and respond to messages.
- Clear messaging lets residents know where the governing body stands on issues and helps to clarify confusing or complicated topics. Is your township or borough looking to create an overlay to allow for more development uses? It could take some wordsmithing to help residents understand that an overlay is not the same thing as rezoning.
- Get ahead of controversial stories by sharing what may be coming down the pike before the media jumps on it. Don’t wait for the “gotcha” moment of the press writing about an unpopular development review. Instead, share in your newsletter, Website, email and social media what could be coming and its ramifications. Hearing it from elected officials first helps to bolster trust and shows that the governing body has the public’s best interests in mind.
- Don’t be the boy who cried wolf in terms of press outreach. Determine which stories warrant coverage
beyond your own communications efforts. If you’re not sure, rely on a public relations professional who can shed light on what would – and would not – make a good story. Using the strategies listed above, craft a compelling message either in a press release distributed to local and regional press or, invite the media to an event, announcement or press conference.
Theresa Katalinas understands the inner workings of municipal government. She covered a variety of townships and boroughs as a reporter for daily newspapers and online publications for more than a decade. As the owner of Katalinas Communications, she handles public relations for two townships in Bucks County, as well as a governmental entity in Montgomery County. Call her at 215-519-8833 to learn more about developing a communications plan for your municipality.