"Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
The role of public relations in government is often misunderstood. Some see public relations as mere frosting on the cake—an “extra” that only large city governments can afford; others equate it to the production of “slick” propaganda, designed to cover up serious problems. Neither of these perceptions is accurate or helpful to the person who has been elected to serve the public.
Public relations in government are much more than just another program that a city government budgets into its fiscal year. Every government is constantly engaged in public relations. City employees are engaged in public relations each time a citizen visits city hall to pay a utility bill, phones with a complaint about garbage pickup, or signs up for a city recreation program. Elected city officials are engaged in public relations whenever they respond to a voter’s request, answer a reporter’s question, or explain municipal concerns to a civic organization.
In city government, public relations is the sum of all contacts between the citizens and the people who work in the government. Public relations involves all the actions that influence the way voters form their opinions about their government—from a handshake to a newsletter, from a telephone call to a story in the newspaper.
This chapter first considers public relations as an integral part of daily government activity. It then suggests ways that government officials can interact effectively with the media. The latter part of the chapter offers specific suggestions for getting the government’s story out to the public and describes the role of the public information officer.
Day-By-Day Public Relations
The stereotype of public relations is that of talking with reporters, writing press releases, etc. But in most cities—especially smaller cities—the most powerful impression that citizens will have of city government will come from personal contact with city employees and officials. Paving crews, sanitation workers, police officers, and clerks are in the “front line” of contact with citizens. It is here that a city’s officials and staff have the greatest chance of establishing good relations with the public by following basic procedures of good communications.
Public Relations Begins at the Top
The attitudes of elected officials toward the public will set the tone for the whole administration. Maintaining good public relations offers direct advantages to the officeholder. It will help the mayor and councilmember accomplish those tasks they feel are important. Furthermore, all elected officials depend on good public relations in order to get reelected.
In public office, an official must learn to deal successfully with many “publics”—the individual citizen as well as special interest groups, civic and professional organizations, minority groups, and representatives of the media. Keeping in mind the following rules of thumb will make contacts with the public more pleasant and valuable:
- Remember that you are the people’s representative and spokesperson, not one of their rulers.
- Have a pleasant, down-to-earth attitude with all citizens. Do not treat them in a patronizing or callous manner.
- Listen to complaints and suggestions made by citizens. Citizens often have good ideas concerning government programs and services. Complaints about specific services should be referred to the appropriate department.
- Keep the public informed about city government.
- Be consistent in your dealings with the public.
- Do not be afraid to say no to people who ask favors that are against the public interest or simply cannot be done. Take time, however, to explain why their requests cannot be granted.
- Follow through on citizens’ requests. In a busy, overworked city government, it is sometimes easy for citizen requests to “slip through the cracks” and remain unanswered for long periods of time. Do not let this happen. Often, all it takes is a phone call to the citizen to let him or her know that you are working on the problem or will get to it soon to make the citizen feel good about your efforts—even if you can’t handle the request immediately.
- Refrain from publicly criticizing fellow government officials.
- Consider personal honesty your most carefully guarded possession and public office your most cherished trust.
Today, citizens expect their elected officials to be accessible. Voters expect to contribute to decisions as they are being discussed rather than merely reacting to policies already decided upon. To satisfy these demands for accessibility, many officials have set up citizen advisory committees that meet regularly to discuss government matters. Hearings about pending legislation, especially of a controversial nature, also get citizens involved. In general, an honest attempt by an official to encourage public participation in government will probably result in improved public relations.
Social media provides another way in which government can be transparent and engage citizens. It has also changed public expectations: people no longer look for the government to issue a formal press release to get information out; they are expecting news to be available in a much more timely manner and to be able to engage with city leaders. If city governments are going to be on social media, they should be prepared to meet those expectations.
Good In-House PR Shows Down the Line
"Reputation matters because your behind is always behind you."
Each individual associated with a city government is an ambassador from that government to the public. Officials should remember that a few poorly handled complaints can undo all the favorable publicity gained by a whole series of expensive ads. Therefore, encouraging public relations skills for all employees is very important.
A wise official will also remember that good PR begins “in house.” Encouraging good employee relations is the first step in building good relations with the public: satisfied employees produce good public relations. Establishing and maintaining good morale among city employees, then, is extremely important. This is best accomplished by a supportive and effective administration. Slick publicity can never replace the genuine willingness of a satisfied staff to serve the public. A great deal of damage can be done by a dissatisfied employee airing grievances to acquaintances during nonworking hours.
Department heads and supervisors are most directly responsible for the attitudes, morale, and training of employees. Their awareness of the importance of good public relations to a city government is critical. If a department head tends to act contemptuously toward the public, that attitude will surely be reflected down the line.
Contacts with the Public Create an Impression
All government workers need to know how to handle face-to-face
contact with citizens. An employee should assume that his or her contact with a citizen may be that citizen’s only personal encounter with city government in a month, a year, or perhaps a lifetime. In face-to-face contact, a sensitive employee should be able to judge whether a citizen is satisfied or, if not, take steps to remedy the situation. In all direct contacts, the employee’s personal appearance and manner of speech will play a part in the citizen’s impression of the government.
Note that citizens will also draw conclusions from the appearance of the city government’s offices and facilities. Post signs or have a receptionist to clearly direct visitors to the proper agency or official. Making it easy for a citizen to find his or her way suggests that the government cares about responding to citizen needs. Ensure that the public areas of city hall look professional; first impressions really do matter.
Some contacts with citizens will be by telephone
. Each employee should be encouraged to respond promptly to phone calls as well as to in-person requests. Good telephone habits also include:
- identifying the employee and department immediately when answering or placing a call
- speaking clearly into the transmitter
- speaking with a smile—callers can hear the difference
- keeping a message pad and pencil near the phone
- using tact with callers who are upset, and
- avoiding sending callers on wild-goose chases.
When a call needs to be transferred, the caller should be informed quickly to avoid needless repetition of lengthy explanations. The employee should be sure that the transfer is made correctly and the caller is in contact with the proper person.
Answering requests so that a citizen is satisfied can involve willingness to give the caller a little extra time and consideration:
Even in the simplest procedure by which we direct a visitor to the proper office, we can combine listening and questioning with our answers in such fashion as to prevent embarrassment and confusion. If a caller were to inquire as to where he could obtain a “permit,” an adequate answer might be, “That would be in room four.” But the additional moment required to answer, “Our building permits are issued by Mr. X in room four,” could provide the caller with a specific person to seek in a busy office containing several people; furthermore, the additional information supplied in the longer answer could enable the caller to clarify his inquiry by saying that he had been dealing with Mr. A, rather than Mr. X; we in turn could reply that the caller was seeking a business license rather than a building permit, and that Mr. A could help him in room five (City of LaHabra, “Training in Public Relations and Communications,” January 1962).
Since some contacts with the public will be written, writing
skills are also an important part of good public relations. The appearance of a letter, like the appearance of a desk, creates an impression; smudges or typos should be repaired before a letter is posted.
Letter writers should be careful to use language that will be easily understood. Technical jargon, plentiful in government, should be avoided in written correspondence as well as in face-to-face dialogues. Words like “prioritize” instead of “arrange,” “parameters” instead of “limits,” or “input” rather than “suggestions” tend to block rather than promote communication. Avoid using acronyms, since most people who do not work in government will not recognize them and may be intimidated by this government jargon.
Many cities also use websites and email to reach citizens. The rule of first impressions applies here as well: you want your website to be attractive, useful, and easy to navigate. Likewise, emails should be proofread for grammar and spelling just as you would regular correspondence. Also, keep in mind that tone of voice and inflections are not easily “read.” Sometimes, something meant to be humorous may be perceived by the reader as sarcastic or mean. Even though emails are more informal than regular letters, the tone should remain businesslike.
More and more, people expect to be able to quickly find out information about their city. For this, they are going first to the Internet. Make it easy for them to find the information and make sure the content is updated on a regular basis so the information is current.
If your city decides to connect with the public through social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, it is advisable to have a policy in place that spells out which city employees or departments have the authority to update the pages, what type of information is allowable, and how the city will respond to negative comments.
Working with the Media
"Facing the press is more difficult than bathing a leper."
What is a “medium?” The newspapers, radio, and television broadcasts that come to mind at the mention of “the media” are just part of a much wider spectrum of media. A medium is any means by which communication moves from one person to another. Word-of-mouth is a medium (and, some say, the most effective one). Websites are a medium. Utility bills are a medium. Memoranda are a medium. Cable television is a medium. The telephone is a medium.
People consider radio, television, and newspapers as the
media because they are the ones most often used to inform the public about issues of public concern. But it is important not to overlook the potential of other media in helping local government officials communicate with the public. After dealing with the
media, the potential of some of the other
media will be discussed.
Most citizens form images of their city government and its officials through newspapers, radio, and television. These media tell people what city officials say and what the government does. These media are not, however, just vehicles for one-way communication from government to citizen. They also report public responses to city government officials and programs, and their own editorial responses may influence others. City officials need to read and listen to these media sources.
Good relationships between the media and a government are built on mutual self-interest. A government wants certain news in the paper. It wants the public to know what it is accomplishing. On the other hand, the media want newsworthy stories and information important to their readers or viewers.
Although the government and media depend upon each other, their relationship is characterized by ongoing tension. Even the efforts of the best-intentioned public official cannot circumvent this tension between the media and government. Conflict is inevitable as they pursue their separate goals. On the one hand, the media see their role as that of providing continuing surveillance of government activities in order to keep the public informed. They feel they have an obligation to investigate, question, and criticize government operations and services. They also know that controversy makes news. On the other hand, governments may prefer to underplay controversy. They may expect the media to support their efforts and to give little attention to any mistakes, faults, and failures.
Although both sides have legitimate complaints, the tension between the government and the media is healthy—and essential to a functioning democracy.
Developing Good Media Relationships
"Wooing the press is an exercise roughly akin to picnicking with a tiger. You might enjoy the meal, but the tiger always eats last."
City governments, especially their officials, need to learn how to use the media successfully. Elected officials can perish politically unless they have learned to deal with local newspapers, radio, and television. They must be aware too, that as public officials their private lives may be observed closely by the media.
The following suggestions should help local officials to make relations with the media beneficial rather than frustrating.
Understand How the Different Media Function
Television, radio, and newspaper reporters usually look at news from different angles. Newspaper reporters are likely to follow city government most closely, keeping track of day-to-day happenings and seeking to provide in-depth coverage of significant actions. As a general rule, they have more time and more space in which to tell a story. For most weekly papers, local government is a staple of their coverage. Daily papers also give a lot of coverage to local government news, but include more national and international news as well.
Television reporters are usually looking for major events, particularly those with some visual impact. For example, a newspaper reporter may regularly cover planning commission meetings. A television reporter may be interested in a meeting only if a large group of citizens are planning a protest there. Radio stations either use newspapers as their source of news or have assigned reporters. In general, radio reporters are looking for more snappy news items than for in-depth stories.
Media representatives appreciate an official who recognizes them and knows what they do. These guidelines will help:
Be Both Helpful and Accessible
- Keep up to date on the names of the reporters assigned to cover government. City officials often complain about the rapid turnover of reporters. That is common in the media, but you can help catch new reporters up to speed when they come to your city hall. GMA produces a Reporters’ Guide to City Hall, which offers basic information about city government. Supplement this with specific information about your city—key officials, size of budget, budget year, key projects, etc.—and cap it off with a tour of your city to show the reporter what is going on in your city. You may not get glowing news stories, but taking these steps may produce more accurate, fair stories.
- Know who does what on a news staff. Do not, for example, hold a reporter responsible for a headline or the placement of a story in the paper, since these are the decisions of an editor.
- Be aware of media deadlines. Ask the reporter what deadline he or she is working on and respond appropriately. Get announcements to a station manager in time for the seven o’clock news. Return telephone calls promptly so your viewpoint on a new city program will be in the paper’s evening edition. If you cannot provide the information a reporter is seeking by deadline, let him or her know that you can’t as soon as possible. These deadlines also mean that reporters work under demanding time pressures. Under such conditions, errors can be made even by the most conscientious reporters and editors.
- Give advance notice. Frequently, media are understaffed, particularly on weekends. If you want coverage of an event, let the media know in advance so a reporter, photographer, or camera crew can be scheduled.
- Suggest story ideas. Reporters often hear, “Why didn’t you cover that event?” or “Why don’t you ever publish the good news?” And, often, the answer is because they were unaware of the event or no one told them the “good news.” Reporters get paid for reporting—help them and help yourself by offering story ideas.
"PR means telling the truth and working ethically—even when all the media want is headlines and all the public wants is scapegoats. Public relations fail when there is no integrity."
Viv Segal, MD of Sefin Marketing
Return phone calls promptly. Alert the media to important news. See that reporters are provided with agendas for meetings and background information on issues and programs.
Treat all reporters fairly and do not play favorites. When there is some important news, see that all reporters are alerted. Do not ignore media that cater to a particular segment of the city’s residents, such as newspapers that serve the black community.
Even if you have established a good relationship with the media, recognize that you will not always be happy about the news they report. Rarely has a public official not been annoyed by a statement pulled out of context or even misquoted, or by an action or stand on an issue that has been misinterpreted. What should you do in such a circumstance? Avoid overreacting to occasional annoyances. Try to forgive and forget, and do not hold grudges. Former President Reagan’s top press aide, Larry Speakes, once said, “I’ve been in this business long enough to know that you never win a fight with a reporter or an editor, for as Huey Long said when he was governor of Louisiana, ‘They have reams and reams of paper and barrels and barrels of ink.’”
When you are interviewed by a reporter, keep these two cardinal points in mind: be honest; be discreet. Even if a situation is unpleasant, being straightforward and honest will pay off. Rumors are worse than the truth. If members of the press suspect something is being covered up, they will try to investigate. The resulting story of a cover-up may be larger and more significant than the initial story would have been, and it is certain to have a negative impact on the public. If you have bad news, you tell it first. Don’t let it be “discovered” by the media.
Be as open as possible, be honest, but also be discreet
. When talking to a reporter, remember that what you say will be aired or appear in print. If you are not prepared to make a statement, say so. If you should not say something, don’t. Most reporters will honor a request to keep a remark “off the record,” but some will not. This confidentiality is a courtesy, not an obligation.
In uncomfortable situations, public officials sometimes take refuge in being “unavailable” or in responding “no comment” to questions. These refuges are rarely, if ever, prudent. Public officials can look foolish if, for example, they reply “no comment” when asked why they voted for an unpopular bill. However, “no comment at this time” can be appropriate in some situations. For example, if a city is being audited, any remarks might be premature or damaging. When using that reply, explain why comments are inappropriate at the time.
It is permissible to say “I don’t know” when asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, but it’s wise to add “but I will find out and get back to you.” Then do so.
Although being open with the media is sometimes uncomfortable, it is the best way to serve the public, our democracy, and your city government. A good illustration is Clearwater, Florida, with its policy of supplying reporters with background information for council meetings, stories of all city activities, and copies of all letters of complaint about city services
. The reporters could, of course, follow these complaints through to discover how the city dealt with problems. The result: excellent media relations and a city generally perceived as having a well-run city government.
Reporting to the Public
"I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."
Public relations means more than establishing harmonious contacts with the public or even with the media. Part of public relations is getting important information to the public. A way of remembering this aspect of public relations is to think of the letters in the abbreviation PR as standing for “performance” and “reporting.” If a city government is performing its tasks well, it should also be reporting its success to the citizens. How can this be done?
Using Broadcast Media
The obvious method to report to the public is by using newspapers, radio, and TV. Without some effort on its part, however, a city cannot depend on the media to get specific information to the public. If a city official is on good terms with a reporter, editor, or station manager, a phone call may be the simplest way to initiate the news process.
Remember when talking to television reporters to “think visually.” They are going to want to know what kind of footage they can get to go with the story. When pitching a budget story, for example, suggest the reporter conduct the interview in the city park, where children will be playing in the background, to illustrate the need for more funds for the city recreation program.
and public service announcements
on radio or TV may be used to let the public know about city meetings, hearings, or special events. Information items should be typed and delivered to the appropriate place before deadline.
Announcements or stories about city programs can be given to the press in the form of a news release
. A news release
is a written account of an event or issue. It should be proofread carefully before it is reproduced or distributed. Typographical errors cast doubt about the accuracy and authority of the source. Further, such errors could result in a serious misstatement.
The news conference
is a method of informing all the media simultaneously about an important news item. This method of communications should be used sparingly, however, as many people must take time out of their working day for such an event. Generally, invitations to a news conference are given orally, and news conferences are held in the early part of the day in a central location. They are typically used for major announcements (a new industry coming to town, launching a new city service) or in crisis situations when you want to get the information out to all outlets at one time.
News releases and conferences are usually handled by the city’s public information officer, if such a position exists. Local media may provide other opportunities for letting the public know about their city government.
Newspapers may welcome guest editorials
or even regular columns
contributed by local officials. In some cities, radio and television public affairs forums or talk shows
can be excellent ways of communicating with citizens. A phone call to the station manager may be all that is necessary to schedule an appearance on such a program.
Using the Other Media
Even without broadcast media (and some Georgia cities have very little access to broadcast media), cities have access to a number of media which, properly used, can be very effective means of communicating with citizens.
New communications technology has greatly broadened the range of media. The proliferation of cable TV channels in particular offers new choices in communication. A number of Georgia cities have been able to secure the use of cable channels and videotaping and editing facilities when negotiating cable franchises. The city of Waycross, for example, offers 24-hour city programming to its citizens through the use of a cable channel and a videotaping and editing studio. Other cities have negotiated to have their city council sessions taped (which very effectively ends citizen complaints about accessibility), and some have agreements whereby the cable franchisee provides aid and assistance in producing informational videos for the city.
The ideal time to reach agreements with cable providers about such services is during franchise negotiations, but cable providers may be asked to provide such services at any time. It is an excellent idea to examine what services other cities have sought and obtained and what current law requires of cable systems, before entering franchise negotiations.
Cities of all sizes throughout Georgia are already providing their cities with regular newsletters. They range from two-page, type-written, photocopied newsletters with hand-drawn art to slick, printed, multi-color newsletters that feature photographs of city employees. More and more cities are also producing e-newsletters, which are emailed to subscribers. Newsletters generally include news of city departments’ activities, news of city personnel, upcoming community events, and explanations of city policies.
Such newsletters need not be a one-way medium. They can allow citizens to write letters to the editor. Or they can solicit information. The newsletter put out by the city of Americus, for example, asks its readers to write or call if there is anything they want to know about the city. They promise to respond to every request, either directly or through the newsletter.
Desktop publishing technology, which has become relatively inexpensive in the last several years, is widely used to produce newsletters, since it allows users to produce very attractive, professional-looking newspapers for a small investment of money. But desktop publishing should not be regarded as a panacea. It still requires time and attention to detail to produce a newsletter that is attractive and error-free. Typographical errors and errors of fact can still be misleading, no matter how they are produced. Cities should also be cautious of using images or stories obtained off the Internet for newsletters. Often, these images and articles are copyrighted, and unauthorized use of them can be very costly for cities. There are several websites that offer copyright-free images or images that are in the public domain, and cities should look for those or obtain a subscription to an image library. Cities should also use the same caution in using music downloaded from the Internet.
Utility bills are a direct mail advertiser’s dream—mail that is opened and read by almost everyone who receives it. Some Georgia cities have elected to take advantage of this medium by including short printed pieces with their utility bills. The City of Savannah, for example, includes a one-page “About City Hall” article in its utility bills, giving its citizens information about the way the city functions.
Anything a city prints can be used as a tool to get the city’s message across. That includes annual reports, posters announcing various meetings, advertisements, and press handouts at city meetings.
Facing Live Audiences
Information about the city government can also be communicated in person
—an effective way of reaching specific audiences. Most civic groups welcome city spokespersons as speakers for their meetings. Service departments, such as police and fire, often present programs that explain city services to schools and other groups.
Some cities have devised a speakers’ bureau, selecting city officials who can make themselves available to tell citizens about various aspects of their government. By publicizing the existence of a speakers’ bureau, a city can create increased opportunities to get its message out.
and open meetings
give voters and governments a healthy way to exchange viewpoints. Ample notification of such meetings is important. Scheduling public hearings or committee meetings in the evening, when working people can attend, is a good idea. So is rotating meeting locations around different neighborhoods in the city.
Role of PR in Disaster Preparedness
There comes a time in the affairs of many cities when disaster strikes. This is often a time when good public information is most desperately needed and least available—unless a city has included public information in its disaster preparedness plan.
Such disasters can take many forms. Very often, they are natural disasters—a severe flood or a devastating fire. They can also be man-made disasters—a train loaded with hazardous materials derailing, requiring massive evacuations of city residents.
At such times, there will be intense efforts on the part of the media to obtain comments from local officials. But very often, the department heads and other officials who would ordinarily respond quickly to such requests will be too busy to respond to the requests. Under such circumstances, reporters will often interview anyone they can reach, which can result in conflicting and inaccurate information.
The best way to avoid this situation is to include communications in the city’s disaster preparedness plan. Some member of the city government should be assigned the responsibility for talking with the media—as “media contact.” Make sure the other members of the disaster response team understand his or her roles, so that they can refer media requests properly to the media contact along with the information needed by the media. Reporters do not ordinarily like being referred to a spokesperson, but an official spokesperson is better than no interview.
The media contact can not only field questions from the media, but can also relay vital emergency information to the local radio, television, and newspaper outlets. Thus the media contact can serve a vital function—relaying important information to the media, squelching rumors and inaccuracies, leaving other city officials free to cope with the emergency, and projecting an image of a city government that is well prepared to handle the crisis.
Role of the Public Information Officer
Many governments hire persons skilled in communications to assist them in letting the public know the positive things they are doing.
What does such a person do?
- prepares news releases, public service announcements, etc.
- maintains good media relations
- produces brochures, posters, leaflets, reports, notices, and other publications
- produces photos, videos, and other visual aids
- maintains files of photos of city personnel
- prepares paid advertisements
- responds to citizen requests, complaints, etc.
- meets with citizen groups
- prepares speeches and other presentations
- gives tours
- coordinates special events
- develops forms of recognition for citizens and city employees
- improves communications among city employees and between city employees, mayors, and councilmembers
- strategizes and manages the city’s social media presence
- monitors social media (including blogs) to ascertain threats to the city brand and formulate responses when deemed necessary
- maintains file of news coverage—invaluable for later research.
Obviously, the size and income of a city government will determine whether such a position is advisable. A city that cannot afford to hire a full-time employee in this area may wish to consider taking on a skilled individual on a part-time or temporary basis. However, public relations can never be delegated away. Specific public relations tasks can be assigned. But good public relations is a product of the performances of all members of city government—employees, supervisors, and elected officials.