Communicating for a Divided Governing Body

By Meg Ralph
Digital Communications Supervisor | City of Overland Park, Kansas

With the election in the past and 2021 a New Year, swearing in season is upon us. For many government communicators, that means new faces and new personalities on your council or commission.

If 2020 wasn’t already a year of division in your community, consider yourself lucky. Progress in the New Year could bring growing pains for your governing body. So it might be good to take some steps now to prepare.

1. Get to know the individuals on your council - and their priorities.

Relationship building is one of the most important parts of communicating with the public. This goes double for your new elected officials and those already on your council.

These “get to know you” sessions may look different depending on your organizational culture. Perhaps it’s a communications-focused onboarding meeting with a group of new elected officials. Maybe it’s a monthly coffee meeting in each ward. It could be just a few minutes in the hallway before a public meeting or a Zoom call because 2020 is bleeding over into 2021 just a little bit.

Meeting with elected officials not only helps them understand the value your communication services bring to the organization, it helps you understand their priorities. It may help you foresee a comment seemingly out of left field at a public meeting or in a news story. It may also help you prioritize requests for communication help from those individuals because you understand why the request exists.

2. But take your direction from the governing body as a whole, or your city manager.

The Council-Manager form of government is the most popular in larger cities in the U.S., according to the National League of Cities.

That means for most of us, major projects should go through a city or county manager, or a governing body vote. One-off communication tasks from elected officials can bog you down so far, you won’t see the light of day – or the major important projects you’re trying to accomplish.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t build up those relationships by hearing, through your elected officials, what the public needs and solving problems when we can. But when it comes to prioritizing your work, ask yourself this: Does this project or task meet the organization’s (or whole governing body’s) priorities? If not, give your boss a heads up, and politely decline.

3. Make sure elected officials know what you can do for them – and what you can’t.

This is why I love the idea of communications staff getting a few minutes, or better yet a meeting with elected officials at the beginning of their time with the organization. This gives you an opportunity to create a clear understanding – separate from any timely issues and the associated emotions – about what you can and cannot do for elected officials.

Be clear about your organization’s programs and policies. They probably exist for a good reason. To what level can you get involved in elected officials’ business with their constituents? Do you have the capacity to start a new communications program just because one or two people think it’s needed? If you promote one commissioner’s resident meeting, do you need to do the same for other members of the governing body?

Have the answers to those questions and others ready to go when you meet. Then stick to the policy when the time comes. It leaves less of an opportunity for your communications work to become the focus of hurt feelings or political attacks.

4. If you need to, bring in an expert.

I admit, this is probably a last resort and not something we all have the funding to do for many issues. But a private public relations specialist is a great tool to have in your back pocket.

When a big issue arises, hiring an outside consultant to strategize and do the heavy lifting lets you focus on your day-to-day communications tasks. Writing the social copy, prepping the mayor for a media interview, digging through video files for a specific incident – these things take time. When the big issue comes barreling down, you still have newsletters, event promotion, bulky item trash day and public health communications to worry about.

There’s an added benefit to bringing in a heavyweight. Remember, we’re building and maintaining relationships. Your long-term relationship with your organization and its leadership needs to outlast the political hot button or newsworthy event of the moment. A consultant provides the public relations expertise while separating staff from any emotions that may run high or be associated with the issue. You can still guide the overall work and oversee the message, but sometimes staying an arm’s length away helps build great relationships.

5. Don’t forget to call on your 3CMA colleagues.

The greatest thing about 3CMA is that our membership is like a library of public communications knowledge. Somewhere, some time, one of your colleagues in 3CMA has probably experienced a weird request from a commissioner, a major event being politicized during an election or something else entirely. Reach out to fellow 3CMA members – someone else in our group has certainly braved these waters before and wants to build a relationship with you.