Cut through the chatter and engage your audience with a communications plan.

Facing Down Fake News
Many of my clients run local governments (and the departments within them). As managers of government organizations, these people are not in the business of selling a product or service for profit. Nonetheless, they’re still selling their organization and its many ideas. As such, they’re tasked with similar types of marketing responsibilities as any private-sector company. Primarily, it’s important for their customers to understand the benefits of the municipal services being provided. It’s also vital to engage these increasingly media-savvy and info-hungry customers in a genuine two-way conversation. In this article, I’ve laid down a few simple steps that can allow you to do just that.

In days past, the traditional press was considered both a vital, credible means of information and a check on government. However, in a data-rich society such as ours, a whole spectrum of information sources is now available to anyone with an Internet connection. This glut of information – and the wildly varying legitimacy of its sources – has created an entirely new set of risks, opportunities, and rewards on the playing field.

As recent trends and events have demonstrated, the public has grown less trusting of the traditional press, and increasingly comfortable with alternative news sources. In these uncertain times, many folks cannot even tell the difference between “real” and “fake” news. Government leaders and media outlets can equally share the blame for this present state.

The inherent danger of these alternative news sources is that they tend to reinforce a person’s already-held preconceptions – especially when it comes to negative views of government and government services. Generally speaking, people are willing to overlook the source of the information if what is being proposed already supports the reader’s leanings or suppositions. In this fertile soil, conjecture and disinformation (deliberately-spread false information) will grow like weeds.

Small government organizations may dismiss these trends as “big government” problems. However, if you work in a small government organization and have tried your hand at using a social media platform to communicate community issues – regardless of how innocuous – you will quickly encounter a demographic whose sole purpose in life is to sow discord by starting arguments or deriding organizations by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages. I’ve witnessed councils shuffle and counties waste considerable resources due to un-countered dissident chatter or unmanaged public sentiment.

As a municipal manager, you have a choice. You can tune out the negative feedback, allowing others to control the discourse and feed the fake news monster. Or you can play an active role in the discourse by making and managing a simple, yet effective, communications plan.

When dealing specifically with municipal communications, the end goal is not to engage in the ever-present divisive discourse or to endorse a specific political mandate. It is to provide the public with steady, timely, consistent and accurate information. Simply put, your goals are to raise awareness about community issues; and to highlight your organization’s community milestones. Here’s how you begin.

Your First Three Steps

The initial task in developing your communications plan is to put a face on it. Your organization is defined by the people who work there. Your staff and managers are those who work on behalf of the community. They are people who live within the community. They’re people who are vested in your region’s success. Step one is to squelch the myth of the gray, faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy. This is an especially important and effective step when dealing with small, close-knit communities.

Step two: reinforce the image of your organization and its staff as a source that can speak credibly about the facts surrounding the issues. As an administrative body with requisite hiring criteria, you and your people will already come with a tacit stamp of authority over all the moving municipal parts. Leverage this authority by channeling these people and their voices (whether real or ghost-written) in your public-facing communications. It then becomes a simple matter of communicating the information that needs to be disseminated in the best manner and channels possible.

Next, proactively define the conversation instead of responding to it. This task requires co-ordination and management of the messaging within the organization. It also requires constant vigilance; knowing which comments and concerns to respond to, and which to ignore. Plan your messages well in advance to avoid the temptation to be reactive to criticism. The steady, consistent dissemination of transparent and truthful information will always win the day.

Horses for Courses

Use your different communications channels for their inherent strengths, and monitor the effectiveness of these channels with real metrics. Different channels are more effective at reaching different demographics, and each is relatively suited to the conveyance of given community issues. Most ratepayers will readily consume interactive media, but not all. Many still prefer the printed page or the tailgate chat with their Councillor.

By being consistent in your messaging and cohesive in your execution, you will generate awareness of the sources of information you choose to use – whether traditional, web-based, social or a combination thereof. In short order, this momentum will begin to cement your information channels as authentic and trusted sources of information. Eventually, your brand will become recognized as a watermark of credibility.

Sean Mellis is a professional communicator with more than two decades of dedicated expertise helping local governments and non profit organizations prosper. His firm Tangent Civic has been engaged by public-sector administrators whose business goals are often thwarted by fragmented communications programs and hit-and-miss vendors. He helps these clients by becoming an adjunct to their existing communications resources – providing the strategic thought and creative output that each engagement requires.


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