Municipal Government Communications

Jan O’Driscoll
Senior Counsel,
Crisis and Reputation Management

 A communications plan is the backbone of any government. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Government of Canada or a small municipality, the need for an effective communications plan can’t be overstated.  When done properly, your plan will answer questions like “How does this fit in with our strategic plan?” “Are we being transparent and respecting taxpayers’ money?” or “Are we identifying issues that matter to the general public?”

Larger governments put tremendous effort into their communication efforts, and apply the substantial time and resources. But what about small towns and municipalities? Given their smaller pool of resources and lower tax base, some may not execute their plan effectively or worse, some may not even have one at all. 

Municipalities can actually save the taxpayer money by having an effective strategy that will prevent duplication of work. A strong strategy can provide city officials and politicians the means to work at a higher level so that they will better serve their constituents and will attract potential economic development to the community. 

Communications plans are also critical in the event of a crisis.

A good communications plan should always contain a crisis plan. If and when crisis hits (and they usually do), the fact that there is an existing plan in place will be invaluable and provide you with the means and focus to start communicating right away,  rather than stumbling on the principles of how, when, where and what to communicate.  It sounds simple and straight-forward, but without a plan, the process of communicating in the midst of a crisis can often be paralyzing.  

Where to start? Developing an internal communications plan to be the most effective way to start.  Let’s face it, whatever you say internally should be something that you are comfortable saying externally.  The internal plan will focus on audience identification, issues/crisis management, strategic objectives, internal policies, etc.  The most important factor about an internal plan is that it will ensure consistency of messaging. 

Too often one department will be singing from a different songbook than another department, leading to confusion both within and inevitably to the general public.  There is nothing worse than having to correct misinformation that stems from inside an organization. Once your plan has “sign off” or “buy in”, it needs to be a part of your day to day operations.  It’s essentially a living document that should be referenced at all times. For those of you who have a plan but don’t reference it, I implore you to take it off the shelf and dust it off, it will make your lives much easier.

The development of an external or public facing plan can be built upon the internal plan and must include stakeholder consultation.  Local hospitals, first responders, chambers of commerce, community organizations, etc. all need to have their voices heard. I can’t stress this enough as this document will be where your constituents will get all the information they need so it needs to be a reflection of the community.

By making this plan available to the general public, you are letting them know that you are being transparent and it lets them see where their tax dollars are being spent. This is paramount as one question politicians and bureaucrats always hear is “What are you doing with my money?”.  A thoughtful and easily accessible plan will help you to answer that question with clarity and purpose.

At HOWE&WYE we're here to help you communicate more effectively. If you have an interest in developing a new plan or review an existing plan, we're happy to discuss this with you.