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Four Factors Behind an Effective Municipal Communications Plan

A communications plan helps your message hit its mark with clarity and consistency. 

For local governments, the value of a communications program is beyond measure. Well-planned, consistently managed messaging has the power to unite. To excite. To calm screams to a whisper or create a massive groundswell of public opinion and action.

So much happens within every municipality that needs to be shared: upcoming events, new programs, sustainability initiatives, important updates, celebrations of success, changes in leadership…the list goes on. As a municipal manager, you have an opportunity to share these events as a means of promoting the positive things you're doing, as well as to inform residents of timely and often urgent news.

Keeping lines of communication clear, consistent and targeted to the right people can be a daunting task for any organization. But a with a plan in place, the rewards abound:

  • A clear path forward with established roles, protocols and strategies
  • Concrete, measurable objectives to work toward
  • A more productive workflow — making the most of your team, your time and your budget
  • Relevant messaging that engages colleagues, ratepayers and municipal neighbours
  • Connection with the community, leading to more participation, increased awareness and stronger advocacy

The moment your organization begins to plan its activities and initiatives, you should also begin mapping out ways to communicate them. To help with this process, there are four fundamental questions that should be asked.

1. What’s the Purpose?

What you say – and how you say it – hinges on what you’re trying to accomplish with your communications strategy. Objectives may include:

  • Educating the public about a new initiative
  • Recruiting program participants or beneficiaries
  • Announcing events or celebrating milestones
  • Countering arguments, mistakes or misrepresentations
  • Dealing with an organizational crisis

When you communicate, your purpose is never really about what you want to do. It is what you want your audience to do as a result of your message. Know your goals beforehand, and structure the different moving parts of your communications program to meet those goals. Specific messages can then be designed that will adhere to the parameters of your purpose, and that can be deployed accordingly.

2. Who’s the Audience?

All good marketing begins with identifying the demographic most interested in your product or service. In local government, you may need to speak to many – or all – demographics at the same time. Or, conversely, you may be directing your message to specific demographics or special interest groups.

Your target audience will not only dictate the type of message you put out, but also which types of media you use. An older demographic, for example, will generally opt for print media rather than a website or mobile app. Or social media forums may be leveraged in situations where a two-way conversation is desired.

Once you’ve defined your audience segments, you can then determine the best way to reach them. Understanding which methods and channels of communication are readily accessible – and which are actively used by your audience – is essential for making sure that your words hit the desired mark. The way people get their news varies from traditional forms of media, from traditional print to word of mouth to social media and other online sources. Municipalities need to be where the people are. Select the media platforms most likely to get the desired attention, reaction and response.

3. What’s the Message?

Craft your communications to appeal to your intended audience. This means going beyond just considering key demographic indicators like age, culture or educational background. You also need to understand the mood and the context in which your message will likely be received. Sensitive issues need to be handled with discretion. Common goals and community achievements with enthusiasm. Factual and technical information with the weight of their relevance.

Ensure your organization is speaking with one voice, and staying on message. This means coordinating communications to the extent practical through a single point of contact such as a communications manager or oversight group. In many cases, the Reeve or Mayor will be the official spokesperson for his or her municipality, while managers will speak on behalf of matters pertaining to their departments. Regardless of who’s doing the talking, cohesiveness is key.

4. What’s the Outcome?

It’s always a good idea to anticipate the likely reaction to your message before it’s even disseminated. Planning the response ahead of time helps craft the original message, but it will also assist in keeping your people ON message for any follow-up or fall-out. Will people post on the Internet or organize a protest? Will journalists call for sound bites? Will the message douse the flames or add more fuel? By having a clear message that’s delivered with unwavering consistency across the organization, outcomes are easier to predict and manage. But always be ready to adapt your plan if necessary based on your evaluation.

For any organization that serves the community, communication is vital. The purpose, audience, message and channels will always vary, but what remains constant is the need to engage the media, employees and the community at large in a dialogue. Keeping these four questions in mind will help you ensure it's a dialogue that’s authentic, impactful and consistent.