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Storytelling: Local Government’s WD-40 by Kim Newcomer, Slate Communications

Posted on April 28, 2015


Kim Newcomer, Slate Communications, provides substance to the trendy, but often hollow, suggestion that local government needs to tell a better story.

Storytelling: Local Government’s WD-40

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By Kim NewcombeLinkedIn and Twitter

“Telling our story” has become local government’s WD-40. We think we can fix all that is broken by “telling our story” better.
There was a time in my career when these words made me vomit. I remember thinking if one more person tells me that we needed to do “a better job of telling our story” I was going to punch them squarely in the jaw. Which would have made for quite a story, but probably not the one we were trying to tell.

Three Keys for Telling Your Story

Storytelling_Will_Never_Be_The_Same_AgainI’ve seen the phrase “Tell Our Story” carry the false and unfair burden of a panacea to every problem: Economy suffering? We need to tell our story. Civic engagement declining? We need to tell our story. Employee moral low? We need to tell our story!
For a long time, the Tell Our Story solution was elusive. No wonder I was frustrated!
Now I have a few successful storytelling campaigns under my belt, and thankfully, the phrase no longer incites anger. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that telling your story boils down to three things:

  • Your Brand – Branding is a popular trend for communities and there’s a legitimate reason why. Clearly defining your unique characteristics, and consistently delivering key messages and supporting visuals builds a narrative of who you really are. It sets the stage for economic development (what type of businesses will succeed in your community), for tourism (who wants to visit), and general community pride (we LOVE living here!).
  • Your Employees – Whether you’re an organization of 5 or 5,000, your employees are working hard to provide services for the greater community good. I’m willing to bet that the majority are also trying to find ways to do their job better. It can be a thankless career, so you can’t blame your community leaders for wanting to shine some light on their efforts. This can boost morale and ultimately improve retention, productivity and recruitment.
  • Your Credibility – Residents are asking more and more from their local governments. And often we’re delivering, but sometimes we forget to tell people that. Sharing information about the quality of services you provide and the efficient manner in which you provide them supports efforts to build accountability and transparency. This is particularly important for communities looking for additional funding through tax increases or other methods that require public support.

Four Step Process for Storytelling

When we’re charged with helping a community tell their story, we break it down into four steps:
Define It
Before you start telling your story, you better be clear about what that story says. Is your story about innovation? Stewardship? Service? Before you dive into any sort of concerted campaign, make sure you have buy-in from leadership on just what exactly that story is.
Simplify It
download (1)Local government is notoriously guilty of over sharing. We’re like that awkward person on the bus who tells you all about her uncomfortable medical conditions, her convict husband, and her tortured childhood…all within the first 30 seconds of meeting her. No one wants to listen to that woman. And no one wants to listen to a local government who is going to tell them every single boring detail about what makes them great.
Define your story, then simplify it. Then take a few days and simplify it again.
Share It
Regardless of the size of your community, you have assets to help you tell your story. Websites, social media, community signage, uniforms, television stations…we often forget the vast list of communication resources that are squarely within our own control. No need to buy ads, no need to rely on the media, you can create and share your own story using your own resources. If you have the budget to move beyond your own tools, even better.
Stick to It
Too many times I’ve seen it happen. A city takes the time and energy to create a new campaign. They launch a comprehensive effort – ads, social media, newsletters, the works! Then three weeks later, poof! It’s all gone. No posters, no tweets, nothing. And when the effort doesn’t produce the desired results, everyone is scratching their heads trying to figure out why.
Successful story telling takes time. I promise you: you will get sick of your own story. You will roll your eyes at your own key messages. But from the public perspective, that’s just when it’s starting to sink in.

Examples of Success

Big City Example: Austin, TX

Music, innovation, and yes, a little weirdness, Austin tells its story like a big city should. Coordinated among multiple agencies (tourism bureau, city, economic development office) as well as multiple platforms (websites, social media, print materials), Austin has focused on consistent messaging and images to support their brand.
Small Town Example: Windsor, CO
11149308_10153184998249484_8885649106004300449_nWhen the small town of Windsor, CO, population 20,500 was preparing to celebrate their 125th Anniversary, they knew they had a story to tell. Celebrating their agricultural past and heritage while looking ahead to a promising future, Windsor launched a small scale story telling campaign with consistent imagery and messaging. The tale is being told through a new website, street banners, advertising, even by changing the logo on Town Staff apparel. It’s a great example of using the resources available to you.

Wait For It, Wait For It….

For those who have been given the now infamous “Tell Our Story” directive, I hope this perspective gets you started in the right direction. Remember, there is a good, valid reason to define and tell the story of your community. And regardless of your size, you can do it.
For those that haven’t yet heard this request from leadership…give it time, you will. And now you’ll be ready when you do.

Supplemental Reading

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