While a formal communication strategy might make plenty of sense for a medium to large city, it might be the most useful to the tiniest towns where the mayor presides over the city council one day and helps city workers dig a ditch the next. With a little planning, a small-town mayor can communicate needs and issues quickly and inexpensively. Having quick access to volunteers to help out with the needs of a small community with limited tax resources is priceless.
I researched communication strategies for progressive cities two to four times the size of Rogers — about 100,000 to 200,000 in population. It was comforting to see that cities of all sizes around the world were employing the same basic tools. Nearly all the formal communication strategies had a three-to-five year plan for rolling out their strategy. The tools they use include websites, e-mail, mailings, newspaper articles, speaking engagements, and social media tools like Facebook. I’ll talk more about those in an upcoming article.
Our topic today is the cost of a communication strategy. With the exception of a website, most of the tools are not expensive. Some are free. What is really exciting about a communication strategy is that you can scale it based on the size of a community or budget. A community can start with just one or two tools and build on. Something is definitely better than nothing at all.
Providing the dedicated personnel to execute a communication strategy can be a significant investment. A city the size of Rogers could easily utilize a communication manager with writing and project management skills plus another person to handle the details of website development and design of creative materials. Today, many communication professionals possess some web development and creative skills in addition to the traditional writing skills. The major website development can be outsourced to an outside company and could be set up with a content management system (CMS). A CMS-equipped website is often more expensive initially. However, it puts more control in the hands of the internal content developers which is worth the extra investment.
But a communication strategy doesn’t have to mean more staff members or a new expensive website. A small-town mayor can set up a Facebook page and invite people to LIKE it (if you don’t use Facebook, that is how a person signs up to receive updates that are posted on that page). The mayor can assign other people who are involved with the city to post on it as well — even someone who is volunteering to handle the city’s communication strategy or a student working on a communications degree who interns for no cost.
A small community can use an inexpensive e-mail marketing application like iContact or Mail Chimp and invite people to sign up for e-mail updates for under $50 a month. Those applications manage the database of people and provide nice e-mail templates that fit a variety of needs.
Getting e-mail addresses is fairly easy. A city can collect e-mail addresses by passing a clipboard at community events or gather e-mails from customers who have city services such as water or trash collection. A city can post an e-mail sign-up box on their city website so other citizens can sign up to receive e-mails.
Keep in mind that business owners may not live in the city but they have a vested interest in what goes on there. There are people in surrounding cities who are also interested in city news and events. They might want to receive e-mail updates as well. Just remember to get permission from people before you add them to your e-mail list so you comply with Can Spam guidelines.
Of course, newspapers and television and radio news shows are still a reliable resource for getting the word out to a segment of the population. The world has changed and more people are getting their news via e-mail, internet, and smart phone. With so many more places to get information these days, any organization has to have a complex strategy in hopes to reach as many people as possible. And speaking to civic clubs is still a viable way to reach some of the most-involved members of your community. There is no cost to the city for those services but the time it takes to prepare for a news conference or a speaking engagement means that a city employee or elected official is busy gathering information, preparing, or speaking instead of doing their regular job. It is a good professional development experience but it can be time-consuming.
Should the city hire a consultant to design the strategy? If you can afford it, hiring the right communication professional can save you thousands that some cities spend hiring a consultant to design a communication strategy. None of this is rocket science but it does require some planning. You can bring in a company to design it and they may set all the pieces in place. However, someone internally is going to be responsible for executing the strategy. Of course, the decision may be made for you if your city has no money in the budget. It is possible to cobble together a strategy that uses a few free tools to get you started.
There is no easy answer but whatever communication strategy your city creates will be money and time well-invested. The added involvement that results from informing citizens will pay dividends.