League to Launch a New Communications and Outreach Assistance Program
Jessica Reynolds is owner of Reynolds Strategies and can be reached at Jessica@reynolds-strategies.com.
Do your residents really know what is happening in their city? Do they fully understand the statewide and local challenges facing our communities and governing institutions? How often do you communicate with residents? How do they interact with the city?
Communication and outreach are more than just webcasting the council meetings, taking public comments from a few residents or issuing a press release. Real public communication involves talking to residents on different platforms using messages and facts that they can understand and relate to directly. Unfortunately, most public documents are ordinances or staff reports that just don’t serve as effective communication vehicles for the average resident.
When the public focus on cities is heightened, for better or worse, it presents an excellent opportunity to proactively engage residents on current needs and issues. Events such as California’s budget crisis, the redevelopment money grab and even municipal bankruptcies have clearly demonstrated the external funding threats facing cities. While fresh media attention and an active blogosphere can help to make problems more obvious to constituents, such communications are not directed by the city, and they can often be misleading or inaccurate. Cities can tap into the opportunity afforded by a heightened focus on municipal and state issues and communicate with residents to engage them in a meaningful way.
Cities under ever-increasing fiscal pressure may wish to proceed with implementing new revenue measures or cutting programs or projects, but now more than ever they must first focus on raising residents’ awareness of current conditions. This is especially true if cities will be implementing future ballot measures or infrastructure projects that require a high level of public participation to be truly responsive to community needs.
The Importance of Consistent, Ongoing Communication
For example, when planning to place a second local finance measure on the ballot in a two-year period, the City of El Cerrito relied on a well-established communication program initiated three years earlier. As part of its proactive outreach program to explain to residents the condition of city streets and the need for repair, El Cerrito had implemented a system of direct, interactive communication that included monthly mailings, key stakeholder updates, public forums and presentations leading up to the placement of the first ballot measure and through the election. After voters approved that measure, the city continued communicating regularly with residents through newsletters and updates on the progress of the streets program and other municipal issues. When the second finance measure was placed on the ballot, El Cerrito already had an established line of communication with residents. The people in the community had relevant, factual information and background about the city’s needs and issues. Armed with real information El Cerrito residents were engaged and ready to partner with the city to address challenges and celebrate successes.
Court rulings and public perception have created legal and practical challenges for cities in their efforts to effectively communicate with residents about issues related to budget, services and revenue — and especially local ballot measures. Although some cities ultimately hire consultants to help facilitate communication efforts around a specific program or initiative, for many cities money is so tight that hiring a consultant is simply not possible and can become its own political issue.
Program Kicks Off This Fall
To help cities address their communication and outreach needs, this fall the League is launching a comprehensive assistance program facilitated by the regional public affairs managers. This program is specifically designed to help cities regularly communicate with residents to educate and inform them about municipal affairs and local and statewide issues. A communication and outreach program can be implemented simply to engage residents, to address a specific project or as part of the impartial information provided on ballot measures. The League’s assistance program includes specific communications strategies, samples and templates, and guidelines on how to customize local messages and identify key priorities.
Although every city is different, city officials and staff share many of the same challenges and can learn from the successes of others. The goal of this League program is to give each city, whether large or small, urban or rural, north, central or south, the ability to design and implement outreach customized for its individual capacity and constituency. For more information, contact your regional public affairs manager to take advantage of this new program; you can find contact information at www.cacities.org/regionalmanagers.