By Katie Bengtson
Traditional city newsletters are a primary channel for sharing information with residents. However, with many Americans now getting their news and information in 140 characters, government communicators are adjusting to these evolving readership trends by adopting plain language into all communication mediums.
With the incorporation of plain language, publications contain fewer and more precise words, which makes them easier to read and comprehend.
A 2016 City of Eden Prairie resident survey provided revealing data that led to a complete redesign of its newsletter. For the first time, survey results indicated fewer residents found the city newsletter to be a primary source of information.
This change was not surprising since the newsletter had gradually decreased in frequency from monthly, to bimonthly, to quarterly. On the other hand, results showed an unprecedented increase in the number of residents who considered the city website a good source for news and information.
As a result, the city’s Communications Division recognized an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of the Life in the Prairie newsletter with several significant changes.
Making the change
The team began by establishing these strategic objectives for a newsletter redesign:
- Produce a high-quality publication reflective of the city’s brand.
- Simplify content and drive readers to the city website.
- Make the publication a convenient source of information for all Eden Prairie residents.
First, we opted for a magazine-style publication printed on high-quality paper. This was a considerable upgrade from the existing newsletter’s tabloid format on newsprint. Then we chose to feature only professional photography and present information in plain language with a short-format layout ratio of 25 percent copy to 75 percent design elements.
We had often admired the photography of a resident who posted his photographs to the city’s Facebook page. While strategizing about creating a high-quality design, we asked the resident if we could feature his photography in the redesigned publication. He enthusiastically agreed to sell the city rights to his images. Residents love these photos, and several have asked where they can buy prints!
Next, we aimed to simplify content by driving readers to the city website for additional information. Applying the principles of plain language, we limited each article to three to five sentences, accompanied by a link to more information on the city website.
Our communications staff worked as a team to rewrite existing articles using plain language. We discovered the easiest way to start writing short-format articles was beginning with a traditional newsletter article and taking turns deleting words and phrases that were not necessary to convey the overall message. This allowed us to easily reduce three-paragraph articles to just three sentences of essential information.
Finally, to accomplish our objective of making the publication a convenient reference guide for all Eden Prairie residents, we upgraded the newsletter distribution method. We went from inserting it into the local newspaper to direct mailing it to every Eden Prairie household. With newspaper readership declining, we estimate this change not only makes the newsletter more accessible and convenient, but it also guarantees we are reaching all residents.
Our biggest concern about switching to direct mail was budget, as we also anticipated an increase in printing and distribution costs with the new format. However, our final budget increase was relatively minor and significantly outweighed by the opportunity to reach all our residents with a quality publication reflective of the city’s brand.
Feedback and recognition
The city has received positive feedback about the redesigned newsletter. Many residents are taking note of the publication, often referring to it as a “new magazine” they received in the mail.
The use of short-format articles was a significant departure from the style of the previous newsletter, so the Communications Division anticipated feedback from residents who might not appreciate the new approach. However, after a full year of publications, the city has yet to receive any negative feedback.
Several professional organizations have recognized the redesigned Life in the Prairie newsletter with local and national awards. For example, the Minnesota Association of Government Communicators named the newsletter 2018 Best of Show, the top award granted to a single entry that best demonstrates effective government communications in the state.
The city will measure the overall success of the redesigned publication with its 2018 resident survey.
Katie Bengtson, ABC, is senior communications coordinator and public information officer with the City of Eden Prairie. Contact: email@example.com or (952) 949-8526.