Local governments publish essential data on a host of issues such as community development, community health, education, recreation, crime, and interesting stories about its citizens. Despite the efforts of most local governments to get news out to their communities, public trust continues to decline. According to Pew Research, less than 20% of Americans trust their government to “do what is right.” This statistic is an indication of the importance of communication in local government.
Strong communication in local government creates trust in its citizens. The hope is that this trust will inspire citizens to become involved in their communities. As the relationship builds between governments and citizens, over time, citizens will come to realize that their concerns matter. Community engagement keeps citizens informed on the projects that affect their taxes and their lives. Citizens gain assurance that their local government is well-prepared to handle emergencies. Engagement also helps to inform voters about their choices at the polls.
Fortunately, technology gives local governments a multitude of ways to communicate. Print, television, radio, online media, social media, text, and e-alerts are all communication channels for local governments to consider using.
In moving forward, it will help local government staff and officials to remember the basics of good communication. Communication has three parts—the sender, the message, and the receiver. Messages can easily be distorted or changed when noise interferes with them. The challenge for local governments is how to cut through the noise and get clear, effective messages across to the community.
In light of technology, good practices for communication are still evolving. As they continue to take shape, citizens still want communication that’s available, honest, responsive, and genuine.
Sending Strong Communication Through Social Media
In many ways, social media is a new outlet for local governments. It’s also one that can have great benefits for them.
Social media outlets like Facebook can help get out important news like school closures, road detours, emergency power outages, floods, fires, and other vital information.
Social media is also a great way for local governments to resound the truth when necessary. Timely, genuine messages through social media can dispel rumors, resolve inaccuracies, and provide a venue for local governments to post rebuttals about important issues.
Local governments can also effectively use social media to respond quickly in the event of a crisis or emergency. Communication is vitally important during times of emergencies. Having a channel like social media to get the truth out to the community helps to keep rumors at bay and helps prevent unnecessary panics. When a local community uses social successfully to handle a crisis, the public will remember and seek out that same media outlet when they need information again. This is part of the process of creating trust between local governments and its citizens.
Social media outlets can also be used to generate goodwill with local citizens. It’s a good place to post information about community-sponsored events like Shop with a Cop, coat or toy drives, and other charity events. Dunkin Donuts partners with local police officers annually for Cop on a Rooftop to raise money for Special Olympics.
Another way that local governments can tap into communication with their citizens is to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. We saw this in action when the Police Department Lip Sync Challenge went viral. Within weeks, police departments which were often joined by fire departments and other local government staff choreographed and taped videos to popular songs. The original idea was to show the general public that their first responders are just ordinary people who work at extraordinary jobs. This is the kind of situation where local governments have an opportunity to be innovative and draw more attention to their local government websites. The question that local governments need to be asking themselves if this type of situation should present itself again is how can they use it to attract citizens to the other areas of the local government’s work. How can they use this type of good public relations to reach their objectives?
To make communications strong between the local government and its citizens, staff needs training on how to be effective and they need to know what their expectations are for managing social media and other types of communications. Communication of today is different than just writing a news story or clearing a press release. New communication channels such as blogs and social media outlets bring a measure of accuracy and accountability with them. To have strong communication, writers will need to match the writing style to the platform.
Just as technology is opening up new outlets for communication, one of the long-time communication channels is shutting down in many places and that is the local newspaper. News is now highly accessible by electronic means and hard copies of newspapers aren’t as popular. Many local newspapers can no longer sustain themselves because of low sales.
Some local governments have dabbled in allowing citizens to serve as bloggers for their communities. Other communities rely on a resident’s newsletter. For these types of initiatives to be successful, staff needs to share updated information so that writers can write meaningful content.
It’s important to have strong communications in local government because we live in a representative democracy where citizens have the freedom to make their voices heard. Our government structure is designed where we elect people to speak for our wishes in local government.
There’s no question that technology makes it easier for local governments to get messages directly to their citizens. Local governments also have to remember that communication is a two-way street and they must also listen to their constituents and create channels to gain feedback from them. Input from citizens is part of the diversity that helps local government councils make good decisions. Advances in technology have opened up new channels for communication in local government. Staff and elected officials still have some work to do in many cases to utilize them in the best way to actively engage with citizens. When they succeed it shows respect for constituents and helps to earn their trust.