A Truly Engaged Community

June 9, 2011

It took a lot of people to make the Grand Rapids LipDub video and it reveals the high level of pride and engagement the residents have in their community. Another creative use of video that jumps to the head of the pack.


Best Practices in PR

July 30, 2010

I was reviewing the Annenberg Strategic Public Relations Center study on Generally Accepted Practices (GAP) in the public relations industry, produced at the University of Southern California, and thought that the list of best practices described a helpful path in developing government public relations efforts. There were a total of 13 best practices, listed below, outlined in the executive summary.

First, the report suggests that organizations “maintain a higher than average ratio of PR budget to gross revenue.” The idea here is that the agencies that invest the most in their PR efforts tend to gain from that investment. For local governments, that could mean ensuring an appropriate amount of staff is designated for public outreach and media relations, or that the budget for printing and television production is adequate for reaching the intended audiences.

Next, the report suggests the best PR programs are those that “report directly and exclusively to the C-suite.” Having the public information function buried in a division or relegated to someone as “additional duties as assigned” means that you’re not being strategic or timely with your communications. The person charged with providing external communications needs to be a part of the management team, regardless of their title.

The third item, “optimize the C-suite’s understanding of PR’s current and potential contribution to the success of the organization as a whole,” seems a bit self-serving, but is vitally important. As professional communicators, we should use our skills to communicate the importance and success of our efforts to inform and engage residents. Report back frequently on the activities and outcomes of your communications program and share “war stories” that demonstrate the value professional communications staff can provide to the organization.

While aimed at a corporate audience, the next practice—”Establish an effective social responsibility strategy for your organization”—serves as a reminder to local governments to remember the role of local government in the lives of the residents it serves, and the true meaning of a career in public service. We are in a better position than most to bring about positive change in our communities and therefore have more of a responsibility to do so in a fair and inclusive way.

Relatively new when the report was originally published, the fifth recommendation, to “establish an effective digital-media strategy for your orgnization” has recently become one of the single most important tools for communications professionals to understand and implement. Low cost and direct, social media and other web technologies have the ability to become the most powerful tools that local government communicators have at their disposal. They can be used to increase direct interactions with constituents, increase transparency, and provide engagement opportunities in policy making. It is opening our industry to exciting new possibilities and we need to lead the way in leveraging the reach and power of these tools.

One area where many governments have the most need, yet fail to adequately plan is in “establish[ing] an effective issues-management strategy.” Having a systematic and thoughtful approach to identifying and responding to issues as they arise allows the organization to not only communicate better, but also to be more responsive as issues arise.

The seventh suggestion is to “optimize integration and coordination within the PR/Communications function, and between it and other organizational functions.” That anyone considers “PR” as somehow different that other organizational functions seems like a serious problem to me. Communications takes many forms, written, broadcast, verbal, nonverbal, and others; all of which work in unison (ideally) to support the successful execution of the organization’s mission. Whether it’s wayfinding signage at your park facility, how an officer interacts with a motorist that is being ticketed, or the community newsletter mailed to constituents homes; all work together to make the organization’s reputation with constituents.

“Encourage highly ethical practices across the organization, beginning with communication” says it all.

To best implement the next suggestion, to “encourage the organization-wide adoption of a long-term strategic point of view, beginning with communication,” I would recommend using a Strategic Communications Plan. Ideally, your organization has a strategic planning system that is used to align resources with policy direction that can provide objectives for your your communications plan, but if you don’t, then having the communications plan at least allows you to be strategic in using the communications assets you have.

Ten and eleven are organizational culture decisions that leaders reinforce, whether purposefully or by default. The recommendations are to “encourage the organization-wide adoption of a proactive mindset, beginning with communication” and “encourage the organization-wide adoption of a flexible mindset, beginning with communication.” The nimble organization is more responsive, more resilient, and more effective than the rigid one. Your employees shouldn’t be so wrapped up in red tape that they don’t feel empowered to make decisions that benefit your constituents, no matter what their function. That all starts with the personality and intent of the leaders in the organization, both formal and informal. But it’s also a moment-by-moment choice we, as individual employees, make as we do our jobs.

To me, “optimiz[ing] the integration of PR and reputational considerations into top-level organizational strategies” begins when the senior leaders understand the role of communications in the successful delivery of services. Every function of government involves delivering a service, and all services require communication. The two are forever intertwined and focusing on operational issues while ignoring communications is a recipe for inefficient, unfocused, and inferior services.

The final suggestion is to “measurably contribute to organizational success.” The emphasis is in original and if it wasn’t, I would have added it. Understanding what outcomes you intend to achieve and then measuring your success at meeting them is the only way to ever know if you’re being effective or not. And, just as important, what gets measured, gets done.

Get the whole report at http://ascambassador1.usc.edu/Home/CentersandPrograms/ResearchCenters/SCPRC/PrevGAP.aspx

A Little Discouraging

May 13, 2010

Two weeks ago, the following letter to the editor was printed in our local newspaper:

I was somewhat disappointed that a resident would think of the work we do as less than essential, but I also recognize that it’s my responsibility to help people understand why we have a communications function. It’s obvious that the writer saw the function of our Community Relations department as being a hindrance, rather than a help to our residents.

We all believe that the reason we are here is to promote transparency and encourage participation with the City of Reno government. We strive to make certain that residents are able to hear and understand the decisions made by policy makers, have knowledge of City codes and regulations, and are able to access services and products that the City makes available.

Seeing this letter made me realize that it would be easy for someone to assume that we are trying to sell a version of the City’s story that paints the staff and elected officials in a good light, or are trying to spin issues in our favor. They may think we are there to protect powerful interests. Or that we have an agenda that we’re trying to push.

She was right about the need to balance this function in the face of major organizational downsizing, of course. We recognized that the size of our Community Relations division was a “nice to have” function, a luxury we could no longer afford to maintain at the levels we once had. As mentioned in my previous post, we have reduced our department by eight positions since January and are operating at a much reduced level.

Community Relations was cut by more than 42%, where other departments were cut by about 25%, and public safety by 11-12%. That makes sense, given the importance of public safety. And we may reduce even more through attrition and staff reassignment.

We still have the call center, so people can call one number to ask questions, provide feedback, or enter a service request. We still have two Community Liaisons who work with the Neighborhood Advisory Boards and act as ombudsmen to help residents who are having challenges. And we still have three communications people to answer media questions, keep the website maintained, produce occasional videos, monitor social media sites, write blog entries, run town hall meetings, and provide the public with accurate and timely information about the City.

My goal is to provide what I consider an absolutely essential service: access and transparency of local government to its constituents.

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf

April 19, 2010

Last week was tough for all of us at the City of Reno. Beginning on Wednesday, we reduced the number of positions in the City by 208, a reduction in force aimed at balancing this year’s budget, a big chunk of the City’s 1,300 person workforce. Of those, 101 were filled, full-time positions.

After letting four of my own staff know that their positions were being eliminated, I reviewed my notes and then headed to the lobby to face all three of the local affiliate’s news crews. I barely remember the interviews; I was still grieving the loss of my friends and colleagues. It was difficult to watch later that evening, but I did, as I was worried about how it came off.

I guess it was as good as could be expected, under the circumstances. As usual, however, I thought of much better things that I could have said as I sat watching the broadcasts.

It was the second layoff this year, the first being just last January, when I had to let our Strategic Communications Program Manager, a Community Liaison, and one of our Graphic Designers go. That took us from 19 to 16.

This time it was another Community Liaison, the other Graphic Designer, a senior call taker from our call center, and our Television Technician. At the same time, our most experienced Public Information Officer announced his retirement, a position we will not be able to replace. That leaves 11 staff members in Community Relations: one Public Information Officer; our Television Production Manager; the Web Services Manager; a Community Relations Manager who oversees the call center, along with three call takers; two Community Liaisons; my assistant and myself. A great team, despite the recent losses, but much, much smaller.

We’ll be reinventing ourselves, as well as preparing for another possible downsizing on July 1, 2010, the start of the new fiscal year. We’re focusing our efforts on low- and no-cost efforts, including social media, media relations and public affairs programming, and public relations.

Each of us will be evaluating how we spend our time and what the best investment of our meager resources will be.

I was impressed with the professionalism of the folks that I gave such devastating news to. Each understood that the decisions were not personal, but that the revenues couldn’t support the current staffing levels.

I’m also impressed with the great attitude of those who remain—their spirit of public service is unwavering, even in these uncertain times.

While the waves of change crash all around, we find strength in focusing on our commitment to create transparency, reinforce our credibility, and provide access to our constituents. Sometimes it helps to remember why you chose to work in government communications and how we make each of our communities better through our daily efforts.

I’d like to thank all of my colleagues, those who are seeking their next adventure and those who remain, for showing me what commitment, service, and true courage is.

Benchmark Your Tweets

April 5, 2010

There’s an interesting tool set up to track government messages being distributed by Twitter at http://www.govlive.com/. You can use it to get a glimpse into what other governments are doing with Twitter and get ideas for new ways to leverage it for your agency.

It tracks over 5,000 governments (I had to ask for ours to be included) and gives viewers the option to vote whether each entry is “helpful” or “unimportant.” That feature doesn’t seem to be used much at this point, but could become a way of seeing what reactions to a particular post are as it catches on.

As I look at the feed today, there are event announcements, emergency preparedness reminders, and news about pending Council decisions. There are even a couple of responses to constituents mixed in.

Bookmark and Share

April Fool’s Day

April 1, 2010

Google changed their landing page today in honor of Topeka, who had changed their name to Google for the month of March as part of their effort to convince Google to select Topeka as a beta site for the gigabit fiber project.

The effective use of humor can go a long way towards personalizing your organization and creating goodwill.

Bookmark and Share


A Story Well Told

March 27, 2010

While putting the finishing touches on Reno’s Google RFI submission yesterday, I took a moment to glance through the NAGW discussion group and came across a video created by Hand Crank Films in support of Bellingham, Washington. I understand from reading some of the comments on YouTube that it took two days to shoot and another four to edit, which is a significant investment, but well worth it.

The reason I’ve included it here is that I think it provides one of the best examples of the power of video for communicating about a community. The creators tell a simple, visual story that would work without the voice over. But then they wrote copy that builds on the metaphor and provides a sincere, emotional link to the community. The concept is both apt and compelling and is beautifully illustrated. The “actors” are natural and believable. This is gorgeous work.

We should all aspire to this level of craft and creativity.

Bookmark and Share

Clip Art = Agony

March 22, 2010

Ask anyone who’s ever worked for me about my biggest design peeve and they’ll probably say “double spacing after a period.” Close, but they’d be wrong.

The truth is, I hate clip art.

One of my favorite stories (and I’m probably going to be killed by my former colleague for this) involves a complex, but rather dry presentation on process improvement. My colleague had all her ideas laid out and was looking to make her presentation more engaging by adding some visual interest.

Somewhere, somehow, she discovered a cache of line drawings of clowns. Dozens of them. Cute clowns, funny clowns, clowns with balloons. Every slide had its own, distinctive clown.

Setting aside the subtext the illustrations gave to the presentation, the quality of the illustrations was part of my problem. They were simple line art drawings with a cartoonish four-color scheme. Just hideous.

I suppose that in the spirit of full disclosure I should admit to a life-long hatred of clowns, so this particular use of clip art was made infinitely worse by the subject matter. But I truly don’t believe that my odd prejudice against clowns mitigates the situation.

The trouble with clip art is that most of it is so common that it’s difficult to find illustrations that aren’t hackneyed, and is usually tacked on at the end to “spice up” the design and is therefore not organic to the piece. It doesn’t thoughtfully and purposefully contribute to the design goals.

On the other hand it’s inexpensive—free in many cases—and easy to use, and can be used as a design element when enough time is invested in selecting, sizing, and integrating the artwork into the design.

But if you want to do one thing to improve the look of your publications: don’t use clip art. And don’t double space after a period. And don’t use Microsoft Word as a page layout program. And…

Bookmark and Share

Nevada Interactive Media Summit

March 13, 2010

On Saturday, March 6, 2010, Reno’s Web Services Program Manager Kristy Fifelski gave a presentation to a full room at the Nevada Interactive Media Summit called “The New Look of Interactive Government.” Questions from the audience mostly were about policies for implementing social media and managing comments. Her presentation follows.

Bookmark and Share

10 “Musts” for Internal Communications

March 12, 2010

To be successful in communicating with your employees, there are ten “musts” that will make your program effective.

1. The impetus for good internal communications must come from the top. In order for communications with employees to be meaningful and relevant, there has to be active involvement and a commitment to communicate from your chief executive. The senior managers must use the tools you have to keep line employees up-to-date about strategic issues and challenges. Without that buy-in, any internal communications program is doomed to die.

2. You must have a plan in order to implement a successful program. Without a roadmap, it’s hard to get where you’re going. Identify the internal communications goals you have, assign staff responsibilities, and determine what tools you have or would like to develop. Set policies and procedures, so everyone knows what is expected from them.

3. Communications must be consistent and timely. In order for a communications channel to be adopted, your audience needs to see that it is consistently used and that the information they receive is both useful and timely. If your communications are sporadic or non-existent, or if they’re inaccurate or too late to help, then they won’t have any reason to listen. Strive to send messages in a predictable way that are filled with interesting information. And always make sure they hear it from you first, before the rumor mill can grind out competing messages.

4. You must leverage the chain of command and existing communication opportunities. Messages coming from line managers is the most direct and credible way to reach front line staff. Don’t reinvent the wheel or force employees to find your communications; instead use existing staff and team meetings to get your messages out, in addition to tools like your email system and intranet.

5. When you communicate, you must strive to be honest, open, and credible. Your employees will know if you give them half answers or political spin. Be authentic, give them as much information as you have, and make them partners in the problem-solving process.

6. You must use communications to build a shared culture, not just to ram messages down your employee’s throats. Use your internal communications to celebrate successes across the organization, to talk about the values and vision shared across the organization, and to help employees see how their efforts contribute to the organization’s strategies.

7. You must remember to acknowledge your employees point of view in your communications. Your employees will always want to know “why do I need to know this?” Identify why and include those reasons as part of your communications. Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s not.

8. You must be open to feedback. Communications is a two-way street. Without having mechanisms to ask questions, provide feedback, or complain, employees will quickly tune you out. Nobody wants to be at the receiving end of a megaphone.

9. Internal communications must be consistent with your external communications. What you tell your employees must jibe with what you’re saying to the public. If you are being honorable in both this won’t be a problem. Also remember that your employees may live in the community and be considered “experts” on your organization by their friends and neighbors. The more they know, the better ambassadors they will be.

10. You must have an internal communications program. Talking to your employees is not optional. Not only do they have a valid need to be informed about organizational issues, but morale is affected by the level of communication within the organization, particularly in times of crisis or organizational change.

Are there any other “musts” I may have missed?

Bookmark and Share