As the only public servant (or politician, as some might say) at Jackson Spalding, life often takes me to places where public relations and public service overlaps, and provides some interesting lessons in communications strategy.
As a professional communicator, I am constantly amazed at some of the basic mistakes local politicians and public servants make when attempting to educate their constituents.
Here are six simple rules for effective political communications for city, county, and state politicians:
- Write it before you say it. Taking time to write out your position – particularly on a complex topic or controversial subject matter – helps you better understand and defend your position and prepare for inevitable debate. While politicians at a local and state level have to be able to think on their feet in public settings, having written and reviewed positions on controversial issues – whether it is a land use challenge, an alcohol vote, or controlling the population of feral cats (yes, this is a controversial issue in several Georgia municipalities) – is key to consistency and veracity. Providing a written copy of your position to the local press can also help improve the accuracy of coverage as well.
- Throw out the polls. When it comes to local government, voters expect (and respect) leadership more than someone with their finger to the wind seeing which way the wind blows.
- Skip the Republican/Democratic national party talking points. Aspirational politicians fired up by their local party organizations often bring up issues like posting the Ten Commandments, national health care, or abortion at local government settings in an effort to build a record for an eventual run for higher office. This is a quick way to end a career before it gets started. Local voters are often skeptical of national positions and the parties that push them, and legal counsel is going to be sweating law suits as soon as these types of topics are introduced.
- Watch the e-mail. While state legislators’ e-mails aren’t subject to open records requests, those of local politicians are, even if they come from a work or personal e-mail. Keep all of your electronic communication professional, above board, and in line with what you would want to see in the newspaper or on your favorite (or least favorite) blog.
- Bring your “A game” to meetings. I can’t count the times I have watched televised meetings or attended public meetings where politicians arrive unprepared, give off negative body language, dress poorly, act disinterested, are disrespectful, or succumb to exhaustion after a long meeting. Even if poorly attended, public meetings are the public’s primary chance to participate in the democratic process outside of elections. Public servants who do not prepare and are disrespectful of these opportunities are selling themselves and their communities short.
- Avoid overt emotion –
especially anger – in public meetings.
Public meetings can be emotional, especially when times are tough. But there is nothing more offensive to voters than a haughty or impatient elected or appointed official. Sometimes, you just have to take it, no matter how unjustified an accusation or comment might be.
If you’re a local elected official, following these tips is even more important as revenues disappear and budgets shrink. Good communications is more important than ever.