Communicating effectively with constituents can be a challenge, whether a county official is newly elected or a multi-term veteran. Yet good communication builds trust and understanding.
How can a county official with limited time and no professional public information staff get their message out to help the public (and legislators) better understand county government and the duties of their office? County magazine asked a handful of county public information officers (PIOs) to share their advice: Tim Wyatt, PIO for Collin County; Marc Flake, PIO for Tarrant County; and Roger Wade, PIO for the Travis County Sheriffs’ Office.
If a county official only has a couple hours a week to devote to public outreach/communication to help educate the public about what their office does, how best could they spend their time?
Tim Wyatt, Collin County: “For Collin County, public safety and the courts now take some 50-55 percent of the operating budget, so we like to remind folks that this system is the biggest part of county infrastructure, while we claim one of the smallest shares of the property tax pie. That’s a simple, accurate message that doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of government accounting practices or some other headscratcher.
What helps are presentations or slide shows with simple, clear graphics to help boil down the county’s role to its very basic essence:
- A pie chart showing the county’s cut of property tax dollars;
- A trend line of historic tax rates – hopefully sliding downward;
- Another pie chart to break down of how and where we spend tax dollars.
We also post even more information on our website, plus stock a good supply of TAC’s “Texas County Government” pamphlet at various locations. “
(Editor’s note: Order copies of the “Texas County Government” brochure and download a copy of the infographic “Where do your Property Tax Dollars Go?” at www.county.org/texascountiesdeliver.)
Marc Flake, Tarrant County: “Different audiences require different communications tactics. Texas is a highly diverse state and there is no single approach that would apply to all counties. Elected officials should consider where their constituents go for their daily news and information.
Officials in smaller counties may want to look at the local newspaper. A couple of hours a week could be devoted to writing a column. Those in medium-sized counties should not only look at the daily, but also consider radio. A lot of people listen to radio when they get up in the morning. Consider spending a few minutes discussing county-related business on talk radio.
Making yourself available through public speaking engagements at Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis Clubs, as well as community groups, is also an effective way to communicate to your residents. The larger, more urban counties provide a challenge that is best approached by hiring communications professionals.
Any county would make great strides in telling its residents about the services they provide by creating a presence on the Internet. The more interactive the website is, the more useful it will be for the public. However, the creation and maintenance of a website is a job best left to communications professionals.”
Roger Wade, Travis County: “The best thing to do is to get involved with social media and send your message out as often as you can. Be careful and stick to your message and don’t fall into the trap of responding to every comment. Some people like to lure people into the trap of responding when they shouldn’t. You can also work with your local media to get out stories about the office and what is going on.”
Which two communication methods do you think provide county officials with the biggest bang for their buck? Why?
Tim Wyatt, Collin County: “Since news media staffs are generally shrinking in our market area, it’s becoming more and more important to post ourselves if we want to get our full story out there. And social media and the county website are the best tools for the lowest cost to get your message out to the public. Social media’s cost only involves your time and commitment to build and grow a following. There don’t have to be daily posts, but a few times a week is a great way to get your message out. And a website can be simple or fancy, but it should be the residents’ biggest source of official information.
So we use social media as a mirror of what’s on the website, singling out services that some folks might not be aware of, circulating new releases and advisories, in some cases dispelling rumors, but it all comes back to the website. Doing that avoids having to keep retaining schedules and archives for both (we operate under the theory that we don’t have to keep redundant files, so one message suits them both, and takes a little less time and effort). To do that, though, we only “push” information, let the followers “share” it and advise folks that if they want a person-to-person conversation, to email or call us.
Our social media followers come in at around 5,500 each for Facebook and Twitter (for a population of 914,000), and we set up Facebook to auto-post to Twitter. Big news can reach up to 21,000 folks in a matter of hours; smaller items will draw 500-5,000 views and shares. It may not seem like much of a percentage of the population, but it’s pretty darn efficient.”
Marc Flake, Tarrant County: “Your website is, perhaps, your best communications tool. You have control of the information and images, the way it is organized and how the public can access it. In 2016, when someone wants to know something about your county, usually the first thing they will do is type its name into an internet search engine.
While newspapers are rapidly declining in readership, in most cases, more people read newspapers than follow evening news broadcasts. If you can’t get a paper to run your story, consider buying space to tell your story. Tarrant County purchases a quarter-page advertisement on the first Saturday of each month in the local general-circulation newspaper. According to the latest available figures, more than 80,000 pairs of eyes will see that ad. This is not only more than all the “followers” of all the Tarrant County-related Facebook pages put together, and, the last time I checked, it’s also more than all the “likes” generated by all the Texas urban county Facebook pages put together.”
Roger Wade, Travis County: “News releases are still the backbone of media relations and social media is fast surpassing that. The thing to be careful of is to control your message and stay on top of trending stories that might affect what you are doing in your office.”
As a professional communicator, what are the top three tips you’d share with a county official to help them be a more effective communicator?
Tim Wyatt, Collin County: “First, throw away acronyms and government-speak at every opportunity. Tell your story in plain, direct words, whether it’s good news or bad. If you don’t have an answer to a question, promise to find it, then get back to them as soon as possible.”
Marc Flake, Tarrant County: “Be quick, accurate and concise. Respond to questions as soon as you can. Make sure your responses are accurate. Get right to the point and state your information briefly.”
Roger Wade, Travis County: “Look, listen and react. Be on the lookout for the stories that affect your office and get ahead of them. If you see a trending story get with your local media and offer to show how your office works. Listen to questions from the public/media before you decide how to respond. Don’t assume where the question is going and answer too soon. Wait and listen to the entire question then take a deep breath and think about an answer, then answer it. React when it is appropriate. There are times when it is prudent to not say anything. You don’t have to answer every question and a good PIO/communicator knows when to be quiet.”
Please share a lesson you’ve learned in the communication trenches — one that has helped you better communicate your county’s story to help improve the public’s understanding of the essential services your county provides.
Tim Wyatt, Collin County: “We have a great set of tools and a great website with lots of bells and whistles. But I’m always reminded of why I’m doing this job when I actually answer the phone and help get someone what they need or where they need to go – directly. Sometimes that takes just a few minutes, but I’ve had some calls that took an hour or so. I try not to forget that most folks only come in contact with the county to register their car once a year, answer to jury duty or find themselves in the court system.
There is nothing more frustrating for a taxpayer than to get passed around or shuttled off, over and over, and have to re-explain themselves four or five times. And there’s no one more grateful who gets a county employee (a clerk or an official) willing to make sure that they get the service they are paying for.
Sure, our goal is to make our documents, forms and services easy to access online. It’s almost impossible to pick up the phone for almost a million customers, right? But you can’t forget those who aren’t tech-savvy or don’t have 24-7 connectivity. One-on-one is the best way to build trust and confidence that these folks’ tax dollars are well-spent. That’s the message that really needs to be put out there.”
Marc Flake, Tarrant County: Several years ago Tarrant County was involved in a communications crisis. The biggest hurdle we had to face was the fact that we were being criticized for something we had no control over. My task was to educate the media about what the county could and couldn’t do to address the issue.
I developed relationships with reporters who worked our message into their stories – focusing especially on the print media. In many cases, broadcast journalists will use the print media as their “homework” before coming to us for statements. Further, a meeting was scheduled with the editorial board to clarify the County’s responsibilities.
The key to success was in quickly developing an accurate message that could be explained in as few words as was possible. We then continued to share this message throughout the event.
Roger Wade, Travis County: “The National Incident Management System (NIMS) incorporates a standard operating system where there is an incident manager and a public information officer, or PIO. That is because the incident commander is in charge of the entire incident and cannot take the time to answer all the questions from the public/media during an incident and still oversee the other aspects of the incident (such as planning and logistics).
Likewise an office holder shouldn’t be trying to handle everything. They should delegate, even if there are only two people in the office, so that your message is clear and distributed properly and all the questions get answered while the job is completed. It is just as important that the message is consistent between the PIO and the office holder.”
The Texas Counties Deliver public information campaign aims to improve the public’s understanding of county government and the essential services it provides Texans. This is one in a series of articles highlighting how Texas counties are sharing the county story with the public. Need ideas for how you can share the good news about your county?
for ideas and resources. Let TAC know how what you’re doing. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Texas Counties Deliver. It’s time to spread the word!