Why City Managers Need Communications Professionals

Being a city manager is a tough job. He or she is expected to be a virtual expert on a myriad of subjects, depending upon the day. Everything from budgeting, the Brown Act and building, to politics, public works and policing. It’s been suggested in jest that the title “city manager,” might as well be fortune teller, soothsayer or psychiatrist, as well as peacemaker.

Helping make a city manager’s day go a bit easier is a position found in many cities called the Public Information Officer (PIO), or Communications Manager. For smaller cities, this may be a consulting resource to the City or, a function executed by the Assistant City Manager or senior management analyst. On a city manager’s worst day, the educated, experienced and loyal communications professional can be a valuable part of the inner circle that will help everyone through the mess, including elected officials, staff and the press.

Amid budget cuts and shrinking revenues, city managers realize that effective and strategic communications at a variety of levels can be a valuable asset in dealing with major, as well as day-to-day issues throughout the organization. Having a position in the organization whose sole job is to listen to the top issues of concern in the organization and the community, then create and develop strategic messaging for elected officials and the management team, can be money well spent.

Here’s a real-life example: In Santa Clarita, a long battle ensued with an international mining company that had rights to build an unwanted gravel mine in the community. The fight wasn’t going well. The City lost multiple times in court. The laws were against us. The Federal judge was against us, and it seemed the project was going to happen. It was our aggressive public relations strategy that got the attention of the company’s president and led to a “truce” which in fact, halted the project. To this day, that mine has yet to be built. A whole lot less was spent on the public relations efforts than on attorneys.

Even with the best efforts and protocols, bad things do happen. One of the worst for my city manager was when an anonymous tip led to the arrest of an 8-year city employee who was stealing from the city. The City responded with complete transparency, which was part of a well-thought out communications plan that included: calling the local newspaper publisher ahead of issuing a press release; creating a webpage with, among other things, the complete results of the forensic audit; and offering to sit down with any and every reporter that wanted to talk to us. The plan was created by a team of senior staff, including the communications manager. The aftermath was as good as it could have been under the circumstances, with minimal negative press coverage.

One more thing: it is lonely at the top. Having worked with three city managers, I have heard this, taken it to heart, and hopefully helped them be a little less lonely by acting as an informed sounding board and confidant, sitting in meetings regularly, sometimes just as a listener, and most importantly, always knowing what the top issues are on the boss’ desk.

City managers can really benefit from having a top-notch communications person in their organization and here are a few of those benefits:

Top 10 Ways the Communications Resource can Support the City Manager
(this list was created for city managers but applies to other leadership positions)

  1. You really do need someone who can tell the emperor he has no clothes on and, with your permission, the communications person can really assist you in this regard.
  2. Your elected officials are at some point going to talk smack about you. Chances are one of those “smack talk” recipients will be the communications manager who will have your back, be able to cue you in, and respond well; usually all at the same time!
  3. Just because you’ve never had a major issue with the press doesn’t mean you won’t. Having a “press point person” in your organization is very helpful to both the city manager and the organization. With a communications point person, your organization’s “press profile” and consistent relationship with the media will be more professional and strategic.
  4. If you’ve ever wanted to write an article in a professional journal but couldn’t find the time, your communications professional can assist you with this. Also, the communications professional can provide the city manager with building an online profile, city website presence, while helping to provide a “pulse of the people” on a regular basis from the city manager.
  5. Communications professionals excel at speechwriting and Lord knows, every City Manager gives their fair share of speeches; so why not make yours great or at least better? Your communications professional can also assist you and your elected officials in scheduling strategic speaking engagements that show your city in a positive light while providing pertinent, current information to a wide variety of audiences about your organization.
  6. Press and community relations prior to, during and after an emergency is critical to ensuring city staff are not caught off guard. Your communications professional can help lead test scenarios to establish protocols on who the “voice of the city” is when bad things happen, while also helping to clarify the roles of the city manager and city council during these situations.
  7. For major issues, the communications professional can help prepare the city manager by going through tough questions, in private, in preparation for responses to councilmembers and the media. It is better if the city manager hears hard questions first from the communications person. You can agree ahead of time that this is a role the communications person will play upon request. A key here is for the communications person to be brutally honest and direct in their line of questioning, to best prepare the city manager for any eventuality.
  8. Storytelling for your organization should be an ongoing effort, utilizing a wide variety of communications tools and tactics, crafted for your many audiences. Developing a cadence in storytelling and setting community expectations on where and how to learn about what the city is doing will prove helpful when drama or big issues come up. Establishing these communication channels for the community are a massive asset for the city. Some may include: a regular column in the local newspaper; regular interviews with city leaders on television and radio, online blogs from the city; press releases, public service messages, email messages (Constant Contact), use of social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
  9. City project groundbreakings and grand openings are an excellent way to show your residents and business community how local tax dollars are being spent. Your communications professional can create a template for these events for your city, assuring that your council gets credit, your partners are recognized, the community is made aware of the benefits, the media covers the events, and the events look professional (think gold shovels for groundbreakings and red ribbons to cut for grand openings).
  10. Never underestimate how much people want to feel they’ve been heard and once you give them that chance, they will likely hear you. Think of the communications manager as an educated set of ears working for you and your organization.