By Jessica Tetrault, Communication
Perhaps you’ve seen it happen as a public official
— the public meeting that turns into a shouting match.
It’s not all that uncommon, especially when
municipal officials lack the resources, time and expertise to effectively
communicate their plans to the public. Meetings to discuss initiatives
involving taxpayer money become heated debates that frustrate both municipal
officials and residents. To add to it all, the next day’s newspaper
headlines may read something like “Citizens criticize plan”
or “Residents rankled by revitalization.”
You can avoid those stressful meetings and the negative
headlines that follow by developing a public relations strategy to keep
your community better informed. But where do you begin?
The first step is to determine who your audience
is. Do you want to communicate with real estate owners? Residents? Environmental
groups? Business owners? Once you figure that out, identify the best methods
for communicating with that audience. A newsletter that is sent to your
stakeholders can work wonders when it comes to keeping them informed,
addressing controversial issues or publicizing upcoming meetings and events.
Such was the case when our firm, the Communication
Solutions Group of Jenkintown, began working on a management plan for
a watershed spanning Cumberland and Salem counties in New Jersey. We developed
both newsletters and brochures to tell the public about meeting dates
and times, as well as to simply inform them about what a watershed is
and how it should be protected.
Reaching out to groups that have a vested interest
in your agency’s work is also important. Communication Solutions
made sure to meet with environmental groups, business owners and residents
in the early stages of the watershed management planning process. That
way, the planners knew people’s concerns right off the bat, and
could incorporate them as the plan was drafted.
A current Web site is another good tool to use to
keep your audience informed. One that is kept up-to-date with meeting
minutes and a calendar of upcoming events helps improve communication
with the public.
Local newspapers can also be a good way to spread
the word about your agency. Sending press releases about upcoming meetings
can help you gain media coverage of your work. If reporters cannot attend
meetings, follow up with a press release that summarizes meeting business.
Sometimes, however, contacting local press to cover
controversial meetings can result in negative publicity. Public agencies
should be prepared to handle such situations, and can control the damage
by taking steps such as issuing a newsletter or purchasing a display advertisement
to address the controversial topic.
That way, you control the content. Coatesville city
officials took that approach by purchasing a full-page advertisement in
the local newspaper when they were proposing a series of changes to revitalize
the city. The advertisement, written by our firm, promoted a program to
reduce crime and drug abuse, the development of new housing opportunities
for low-to-moderate income families and the construction of a new recreation
facility. We also helped the city design another full-page advertisement
to combat negative publicity Coatesville received when it was forced to
condemn land to build the new recreation center.
Organizing events and offering your officials to
speak at them is another way to enhance public relations. For example,
you might offer local officials to speak to the local Chamber of Commerce
about how a revitalization plan will help encourage new business in your
area. Another area to pursue might be to contact television cable channels
or local radio stations to see if your officials could be interviewed
for a story. Or, ask if public service announcements are a possibility.
Deciding who will carry out the public relations
strategy depends on your agency. Evaluate the talent you have on staff,
and whether or not you have the time and resources to devote someone to
public relations full-time.
Often, however, public agencies can be understaffed
and budgets may be tight. For these types of organizations, hiring an
outside firm might be your best bet. Contracting with a company to provide
such services on an as-needed basis can make more sense than paying a
Using a public relations firm also means your agency
would have a team of experts to turn to, not just one specialist. These
experts can provide a fresh perspective and encourage you to pursue avenues
of communication you might not have considered.
When seeking a public relations firm to fit your needs, it’s important
to find a company that has prior experience working with local government.
Make sure the firm is willing to get to know your agency. The firm should
also be a full-service company. That way, you won’t have to hire
one vendor to oversee press releases and newsletters and another to oversee
the Web site.
Once you’ve figured out how to implement your
public relations strategy, there’s one more important tip to remember:
Make sure your strategy is proactive. Too often, agencies don’t
employ public relations strategies until a crisis occurs.
The communication plan must be ongoing to be successful.
If it works, it will help your agency to become more effective. When you
spend less time diffusing tense situations and know how to communicate
with your audience, it means you can concentrate on what it is you do
best: Planning and managing your agency.