By Megan MacPherson.
Ten years ago, electronic communication began edging out print. Reaching people who did not have internet access or email was a gap cities had to bridge, though they knew it would eventually close. And social media wasn’t even in the mix: Twitter debuted at South by Southwest that year, and Facebook had 20 million users compared to its 1.9 billion today.
Today’s communications landscape is unrecognizable in comparison. Opportunities for communicators, along with new challenges, abound. I’ve observed 10 significant shifts in the way local government interacts with the media and constituents.
- We are our own news channels — and everyone else is, too. Unfiltered, direct access to our audiences has rendered the press release a less critically important tool. We no longer rely solely on the media to interpret and distribute our organization’s news and perspectives. Along with that change comes higher expectations for transparency, immediacy and credibility in our social media channels, e-newsletters and websites. In addition, we must be prepared to respond when a video post about a controversial local event or a city official’s actions goes viral and attracts widespread attention or criticism.
- Yet news media remain crucial partners. Providing context, demanding accountability and raising awareness are the media’s roles in ensuring a healthy, functioning democracy. Consequently, the pressure to produce content can’t come at the expense of accuracy as newsroom staffing levels shrink and experience levels diminish when senior reporters retire. Now more than ever, with their credibility and body of work accessible online indefinitely, reporters prioritize solid understanding and a willingness to correct misperceptions.
- Accuracy is always more important than immediacy, but responding promptly is key. In a crisis, getting accurate information out quickly is critically important, if only to say that we’re gathering information and will follow up with the press and the public as soon as we have the facts. Beyond that, little leeway is given to governments and corporations that publish inaccurate information in haste, indulge in speculation or try to deflect or inexplicably delay the release of relevant information. Organizational credibility is easy to damage and extremely hard to repair.
- Authenticity matters. Whether the audience likes the message or not, it must be delivered in a straightforward, succinct way — without hyperbole, fluff or jargon. Today’s skeptical audiences have short attention spans and don’t tolerate messages they perceive as inauthentic.
- People believe their friends. Personal interactions have unprecedented influence on perception. While this presents challenges, it also means that we should encourage others to share our organization’s content in their own social media channels. We must welcome the opportunities to clarify and answer questions that they present to us in return.
- Thick skin is your best protection. Anyone can be an influencer in the world of social media. Distinguishing influencers who matter from anonymous commenters who are internet trolls allows for the best use of our energy and attention. Helping executives and colleagues make this distinction calms their anxiety in stressful situations. It also bolsters their resolve to focus on progress and accept constructive input rather than be distracted by detractors. Furthermore, democracy relies on freedom of speech. While we may not always like what’s being said, the right to free speech is a key principle of democracy.
- The quality of dialogue demonstrates character. To get a sense of an organization’s character, watch how it interacts online. Is the organization willing to listen, respectful in tone, attentive in its response time and relevant in its replies? If so, people will be more likely to bring problems to the organization’s attention and believe their issues will be addressed. These qualities build trust.
- Desire for real-time interaction “in real life” remains high. Walls have come down between organizations and those they serve. Partly due to the familiarity and frequency of online communication, people expect their local government in particular to be available to them in person, in real time and in places they frequent. Special one-topic workshops held at inconvenient times have given way to coffee shop forums, pop-up outreach at community events and interactive community problem-solving exercises.
- Government activities have moved from afterthought to center stage. Well before the divisive 2016 General Election, the evolution of communication created a level of awareness that hadn’t existed before. Whether it’s because people have a stronger understanding of what’s at stake or they find it easier to vent online, they’re more engaged — but not necessarily with correct information. Navigating public opinions and assumptions, often in the absence of context or facts, requires communicators to deploy a new level of diplomacy in their interactions and have credible, verifiable information at their fingertips.
- Responsibility for helping people understand rests with all involved. We’re witnessing a wave of political activism among people who have never been politically active before. While some aren’t interested in the regulations, restrictions and policies that drive the local government actions they want to weigh in on, others will seek to understand. Spending the time to enhance understanding pays dividends. Different perspectives, insightful dialogue and new solutions emerge when there’s a shared commitment to understanding each other.
Some Things Remain Constant
So much has changed, yet this remains the same: In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” This principle drives the work of communicators at all levels of government, but especially in local government. We remain passionate about helping our communities engage in making informed, balanced decisions that improve the cities where we live, work and play.
Megan MacPherson is director of public affairs and communications for the City of Roseville and can be reached at MMacPherson@roseville.ca.us.