To help all of us understand what we should be expecting for communications from our Town, and perhaps as a bit of helpful information for Council, I asked a friend with significant expertise in Municipal communications for help.
Please take the time to enjoy what Marilyn has written for us.
Municipal Government Communications
Marilyn – 27 years in municipal government – various positions of increasing seniority and responsibility in customer service, marketing, public information and communications
– business owner for 10 years
– communications consultant for small municipalities
Generally the role of a municipal government is to provide dependable services which enhance the community and the quality of life for residents, businesses and visitors as efficiently as possible, at the most reasonable cost. Government is different from the private sector in that it is accountable to the public, not just to shareholders, and ‘the board of directors’ is elected by residents who choose to exercise their right to vote. Engaging stakeholders — residents, business owners, visitors, employees, and regional partners — is the key to building a dynamic, well-functioning community.
Importance of Communication
Sound communication planning and execution can help to engage stakeholders positively; provide for better relationships and understanding; reduces chaos, duplication of effort, wasted time and money; and improves the inputs needed to make wise service delivery decisions. Communication is going to happen – planning for it helps to build trust and confidence in the organization.
A written communication plan is the document which provides the road map, clearly outlines the purpose of the communication, identifies specific audiences, structures the messages and priorizes and adds a timeline to the activities. It focuses the effort and connects the operations with the communication.
Elected officials and municipal employees are human – mistakes can happen. If the organization is noted for open and transparent communications, when a mistake does happen there is less risk that the organization will look like it is hiding something or lying.
Who does the Communication Plan?
Council is responsible for communications on policy and the decisions it makes. There may be different points of view on these decisions which are dealt with as part of the debate. Staff support Council’s decision making and communications by providing well structured, comprehensive reports to Council. Elected officials usually communicate as individuals to their constituents.
By far the majority of communication plans are produced by the administration regarding the day to day operations, major new developments, service delivery changes and the implementation of Council’s policies.
What is needed before the communication plan is even written?
- Sound philosophy
The first step in a good communication plan is a sound philosophy. Elected officials and senior management must share the belief that they will pursue open, transparent, honest, accurate and timely communication in all they do. This philosophy drives everything; it must become ‘a way of life’, be part of the culture of the organization.
- Good, well trained staff and the ability ‘to do the job’.
The municipality has to be able to attract employees and contractors that know how to do the job — clean the streets, issue permits, answer telephone enquiries, repair potholes, process invoices and payments, build roads, operate facilities, collect the garbage, respond to emergencies.
Well planned and executed communication adds value to all organizations but it cannot overcome bad operating procedures, poor decision making, unsustainable financial practices, poor judgement, unethical behaviours, inefficiencies or poor workmanship. Doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way is the priority.
What are the components of the communication plan?
- Naming the project
What is the issue, what is the project, what is being done?
(getting people to vote, improving recycling efforts, increase attendance at the water park, schedule for cleaning the streets, etc.)
- Goals for the communication.
The goal of all communication is to help achieve organizational goals.
This will be project specific but usually the goals have to do with
- providing accurate, timely information (facility operating hours, how long will the street be closed),
- driving action (recycling, water conservation, healthy lifestyle, emergency preparedness, voting),
- engaging people in shaping the future.
A good goal is always to predict and prevent surprises.
- Audiences and stakeholders
Who is affected by this project? Who needs to know? Who do we want to speak to? It is important to reach further ‘out’ than your initial, obvious list to identify target audiences. The more the better – ‘no surprises’.
- Issues/Questions that might arise.
This step will take some research, brainstorming all of the situations that might arise and the questions people will ask. This is the foundation for building the right messages.
(What, when, where, how, why, how long, cost, how will it affect me?) Again the goal is ‘no surprises’. Some of the questions you come up with might sound a bit preposterous but if you can think of them so can someone else.
- The messages
In this step the answers or responses to all of the issues/questions are developed. In developing these there needs to be close collaboration with the operations staff to clarify how the project is scheduled to proceed and what changes might need to be taken if certain issues arise. Be prepared.
- Tools of communication
This covers every tool you can possibly use to get the message out to the defined audiences. It requires knowledge about how the audience receives and uses communication and then evaluating the practicality of using each of the tools in terms of the nature and amount of information you have to deliver, potential effectiveness, effort, time to deliver and costs associated with each. The more ways you can communicate within the budget the more likely you are to deliver the message. However, don’t ever think that you will reach everyone or that everyone will ‘hear’ your message. Like the old saying, ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. But you keep trying.
- Social media
- Open house
- Utility statement insert
Outline when each of the messages will be used. Social media and on-site sign will be the quickest.
- Ongoing monitoring and adjusting the plan.
Throughout the project the goals and audience response need to be monitored and the communication adjusted if certain messages and methods don’t seem to be working. Monitoring social media is now a critical function of any organization. Using social media can be effective and low costs but anyone can use the medium without fact checking. Rumors and inaccurate information must be addressed as quickly and clearly as possible before your audiences accept it is fact. Establishing good practices and sound decision making, developing trust and positive relationships with your audiences will help to mitigate the damage from mis-information if you are open and act quickly. Reputation is everything. Poor decision making, poor workmanship and mistakes need to be acknowledged and a plan of action for recovery developed and implemented. There is very little, if anything, that can be hidden for long in municipal government operations – someone knows someone, someone is recording it, someone overheard something, someone has taken a picture, someone has submitted a FOIP request.