By: Bridget Doyle Kozlowski
We answer to many bosses in local government, but at the core of it all, the taxpayers and community are the people we serve. The best way to gain support and aid in transparency is to share the reasoning and hard work behind municipal decision making with the public.
As a government communicator, it is often my job to take the jargon-filled, sometimes complicated reports from various departments and share them in a clear, concise and thoughtful way. Not to say that the average person isn’t intelligent – more that they aren’t involved in the day-to-day specific speak of say, water and sewer projects or government budgeting. Whether they can speak Public Works lingo or not, everyone deserves to know what’s going on in their community.
I’m lucky that I work under leadership that values communication and challenges me every day to find the most effective way to share information with the public. The Village Manager in Lombard will often ask me to meet with small groups from various departments and devise a communication plan relative to a specific topic. Under his leadership, we’ve tackled everything from major construction projects, potential medical cannabis dispensaries, upcoming water rate increases and electric aggregation. We utilize a template each time to identify the most important components of the plan. Take a look at some of our questions below.
What is the purpose of this communication?
Essentially, what’s the goal of this communication? Maybe it is to help residents better understand a city initiative or a change to their services. Is a controversial vote coming before the Village Board? Or is a new project going to kick-off soon? Most often, the goal of the communication plan is to raise public understanding of a topic, whatever that may be. It’s good to lay out what the summary goal or message of the communication effort. I like to think of this as the nut graf (journo nerd) of the communication plan. What is the foremost message in the plan?
Who are the audiences?
As mentioned before, local governments answer to many. In our communications efforts, we most often lay out the following audiences: Public (residents and businesses), media (print, online, radio, TV) and community leaders (Mayor/Board of Trustees, Chamber of Commerce). This is an important step in the process, as you’re identifying who the issue will affect. Other possible audiences include school districts, neighboring communities or places of worship. While the overall message will be the same, the delivery or tact of the message might be different based on the audience.
What are they key messages?
There is one over-arching message of the communications plan, but there are undoubtedly many pieces to the larger puzzle that would be helpful to share with your audiences. Reasons for the changes to the community might be out of the Village’s control. For example, when the City of Chicago passed a water rate hike in 2012, the result was that the county’s water commission increased their prices and it trickled down to the municipal level. Or, if there is a major construction project, why is the Village doing this? What will the result be? What underlying problems is it fixing or preventing? With regards to medical cannabis businesses potentially coming to the area, it all started with a decision made by the State of Illinois. The key messages of the communications plan should be the background, important information and any and all necessary components of the larger message.
What is the action plan?
Developing a communications plan is only useful if you have a plan of how to share the message and related information. This is where communicators must reach in their toolbox and use the various vehicles to reach the audiences. This usually involves digital communication (website post, community email, social media updates) and print (bi-monthly print newsletter, letter mailed to specific audiences). There’s also a press release for media, FAQ sheets to hand to front desk personnel and perhaps in-person open Q&A sessions if the topic is controversial. Another forward-thinking way to communicate on a topic would be to create a short, informational video and share it on YouTube and the Government Access Channel. There are so many different ways to reach the community – and each plan’s execution will differ.