By Don Reeder
The work of city government frequently involves policies and projects with potential for changes that impact residents. Some of these changes could affect the entire community.
Change can take a variety of forms. For some cities, change could mean receiving public safety or other emergency services from another city’s police department, or perhaps even from the county sheriff. For others, a new city community center or recreational center could change the types and volume of services provided for a city’s senior or youth population.
Change could involve the hiring of a new person in a city leadership role. Or it could mean the opening or closing of a new city enterprise operation, like a municipal golf course or liquor store.
Effective communication of changes—small or large—is critical to helping your residents understand any new program, project, or initiative. Residents facing change need to have confidence that the city’s decision-making process is transparent, thoughtful, and competent.
Communication to residents could come from many sources, including a city newsletter or the city’s social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Personal communication via venues such as one-on-one meetings with residents, speeches to neighborhood groups, and city-organized events—council meetings, committee gatherings, town halls meetings—are also effective for communicating change.
When considering the tips that follow for your individual communication efforts, first take some time to think about your city’s policies regarding appropriate spokespeople and messaging when talking about city business. Be clear about intent: are you speaking on behalf of the city, or stating your own views as an elected official? Establishing such clarity will help to avoid confusion among audiences.
Sources of frustration for residents
During the process of public debate and dialogue about changing policies or initiatives, there are at least three identifiable root causes of resident frustration:
These potential frustrations can be minimized through better communication. City officials should make sure that residents understand how public meetings are managed. Be clear about when residents are permitted to speak, and when city councilmembers are allowed to verbally respond.
City officials should clearly communicate to their residents the difference between a routine council meeting and a work session. For example, the latter allows no forum for feedback and response. Additionally, in any type of meeting, the city should communicate to residents and other attendees what next steps are for continued discussion and decision-making about any specific change.
Be personally prepared
Regardless of where you stand on a particular issue related to change, it benefits you as a city leader to understand and be prepared to discuss both sides and all options related to a proposal or policy decision. At a minimum, be prepared to discuss:
In your preparation, be sure to consider the diverse audiences that live in your community. Do you need to address any unique concerns they may have based on their age, race, religion, or economic status? Are there potential change outcomes in your community that might affect those audiences, but might not affect other residents?
Develop an elevator speech
If the time you have to speak with a resident or group of residents is limited, consider crafting what is known as an “elevator speech” to convey specifics. An elevator speech is a clear, brief message that can typically be delivered in 30–40 seconds, or the time it takes to ride from the top to the bottom of a building in an elevator.
According to the American Planning Association, a good elevator speech is:
Organize your thoughts into key messages
As you prepare for formal, personal communications—written or verbal—consider writing down your thoughts and organizing them into key messages. Key messages are statements, or a series of statements that can help tell your story, and the story of your city. They can help you influence what’s being said about your city through newspaper articles and resident word-of-mouth.
Key messages can help you to focus on your remarks, retain the attention of your audience, and increase the chance that your exchanges about proposed change remain civil and constructive.
Studies show that when cities deliberately and consistently plan their communications efforts using key messages as a foundation, they are perceived more favorably by their residents, tend to spend resources more wisely, and tend to anticipate crisis situations—or situations when civility breaks down—before they get out of hand. (For more about the value of key messages, see the “Message Matters” article in the September-October 2016 Minnesota Cities magazine at www.lmc.org/keymessages.)
Practice proactive media relations
Don’t ever be reluctant to talk about your city’s accomplishments. Develop a media relations strategy to advance positive stories about your community.
Don’t wait for bad situations or incidents before meeting with your local reporters. Contact them whenever there is good news to share, such as the opening of a new business in your community, or the addition of a new K-9 officer to your police department.
During times of controversial change, residents are more likely to be receptive to discussing concerns in a productive manner if they are aware of the positive things you and your city are doing. That can be best accomplished by spreading the good word through local newspapers as well as radio, television, and electronic media.
If you have not established a working relationship with the local reporter or editor who covers city issues, make time to introduce yourself, and offer yourself as a useful source of information about changes in city policy, budget issues, or new development. Your willingness to do this not only helps you to communicate change to your residents, it also helps the reporter successfully do his or her job.
The City of New Hope demonstrated effective communication a few years ago when a large redevelopment plan took an unexpected turn. The city navigated the change by carefully communicating with residents at four key stages of the process.
The four-stage process included:
With this step-by-step communication plan, New Hope was able to ensure resident understanding and buy-in of the city’s change project. (For more about New Hope’s experience, read the article “Redevelopment: Four Stages of Resident Communication” in the January-February 2016 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine.)
By modeling the experience of New Hope and following through with tried-and-true communication tips, your city can have similar success when it comes to communicating change.
Don Reeder is assistant communications director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 215-4031.
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