By David Robertson.

If you want to know how effective you are at communicating, ask the recipient of your message to explain what you just told them. Many southern California special districts are undergoing a great deal of changes and, subsequently, challenges that make it necessary for them to consider how best to convey these changes to their customers. When significant change occurs, it’s often a good idea to ask, “Do I need a larger newsletter?” or “Do I need a new strategy?” After all, the goal is effective communication and customer education, not simply delivering hundreds of newsletters.

If your customers were asked to explain what they understand about your district’s brand and major messages, how closely aligned would their narrative be from yours?

Are they spot-on? Congratulations! Some level of discrepancy? Then let’s explore some ideas to close the gap.

When it comes to creating or updating a strategic communications plan, I prefer to take a simple approach that considers stepping back from the business, articulating the vision and value, evaluating challenges and obstacles, developing a communications theme, and incorporating creativity.

Step back from the business

In any industry or sector, it’s easy to get into the weeds and lose sight of the forest. Each day we interact with our colleagues or team, using the terminology, acronyms, and industry-speak that makes sense to us, but that can bring on a glossed over look to customers. We lose them.

At some point, we must view everything from the customer’s perspective. A friend of mine who is vice president of a global communications company once said, “I want my 80 year old grandmother to understand it.” And that’s the standard. If we can’t explain something in its simplest form, customers will certainly not understand our message, much less remember it. It’s not a case of “dumbing things down” – not at all. Customers don’t live and breathe our industry, our issues, or our technology. They’re busy living their lives and caring for their families.

When we look at things from a customer’s perspective, we have the opportunity to empathize and gain the understanding of their needs, motivational factors, and preferences. We can then organize information in a way that is not only helpful, but truly appreciated.

Articulating vision, purpose and value 

The beauty of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign is that it crystalizes and articulates Nike’s vision and purpose. Nike appeals to athletes who want to win. That’s it. It’s simple. It resonates with their customers who “get it.”

Customers know that fire protection, airports, water, and hospitals are important. When it comes to articulating your district’s vision, purpose, and value, you hit a home run when they are written and conveyed in a way that’s human, authentic, and that resonates on an emotional level. Many vision statements at companies and organizations are nothing more than a plaque on a wall. When you can connect your vision, purpose, and value and use them as guiding principles in how you communicate, it builds trust with customers, the media, and others in your target audience.

Evaluating challenges and obstacles

Some challenges that special districts face are prevalent customer perceptions and mindsets. Others might include:

  • Information overload and short attention spans.
  • Complexity of cost structures.
  • Apathy, ignorance, and misinformation.
  • Taking amenities, infrastructure, and service for granted.
  • The need to pass along increased costs to financially burdened households.
  • Complexities, constraints, and limitations of large-scale projects and large infrastructure.

Once you identify the obstacles that you must overcome, you can now enlist your team or consultant to collaborate on creating solutions to address those potential roadblocks.

Developing a theme

There are clear benefits of creating an overarching theme to which all communications are tied to and support. First, it makes it easier for the district to create and focus the messaging, copy, and communication. For customers, the communication is less random and more purposeful.

Additionally, consider revisiting your brand, which includes the district’s voice, the tonality, and the level of formality in how you communicate with your customers. Other considerations are the scripting and cadence of your voice mail message, how you greet customers by phone and in person, and the manner in which you project your district’s image though photos, graphics, and videos.

When the messaging, tactics, brand, and strategy are in alignment and working together, you have a world-class strategic communications plan that will help you meet your goals and objectives.

Getting creative

Now it’s time to have fun. Today’s challenges require fresh thinking and creative problem-solving. So, get out of the office to clear your mind and change your team’s perspective. Have fun with the creative process. Start with a group activity to get people moving, laughing, and having fun. Go bowling at lunch, divide into teams and do a scavenger hunt, play laser tag or have a picnic in the park. Then, conduct your planning meeting with your team somewhere out of the office, where there are none of the usual distractions, and you’re sharing ideas in a new environment. Your team is sure to invent some fun, creative ways to connect and engage with your target audiences.

  • Some ideas that you might try:
  • Personally deliver your next press release with some fresh homemade cookies.
  • Schedule lunch meetings with your local reporters in order to get to know each other.
  • Infuse new energy into your communications; use fewer words, and larger or more images.
  • Update the design and image of your website; use colors that promote engagement.
  • Give updates and news to customers using video recordings on the website, email, or social media.
  • Make it a goal to build stronger relationships with your customers and humanize your district.

Another aspect of being creative is how news/updates are framed and presented. For example, if rates are increasing, present the big picture while being specific. Remind customers of the wonderful benefits that they will continue to receive and enjoy; compare the costs in context and in relation to the value of the service that your district provides; and don’t be shy about letting customers know about the improvements that you’ve delivered.

Bringing it all together

The communications plan and calendar should outline how you’ll connect with various audience segments: customer types, city leaders, and stakeholders. As you identify the needs of each audience segment, consider their motivational factors, and then craft tailored messages for each group. Consider the times of the year, month, and/or week that you’ll implement your touch points. Technology tools make it easier for organizations that want to tailor customer experiences to increase engagement with them. Analytical tools like heat maps on a website can enable your district to see specifically where visitors are scrolling to and accessing content on web pages. Establishing metrics, analytics, and reporting helps to monitor effectiveness and should be part of ongoing discussions on how to continually improve and advance toward the established goals.

In the end, it’s how well we connect with and engage our target audiences that determine how successful our communications efforts are. We can always find ways to improve upon our communications. To do so, however, we need to pause, step back, and think creatively.

David Robertson is principal owner of theGRADproject, LLC. He brings his discipline and leadership in the areas of strategy, market research, business consulting, and project leadership to municipal, special districts, residential communities, healthcare and transportation clients who benefit from his ability to solve problems creatively, approach challenges strategically, and engage target audiences by understanding a client’s vision, creating key messages that resonate with them, and developing specific plans to achieve intended objectives in order to reach large picture goals.  

Originally published in the California Special Districts Association Magazine.