National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV

Good Public Relations Makes the Job Easier
Communicating Your Message

by Erinn Exline
NDWC Graduate Research Assistant

Anyone who has worked in local government for any length of time can undoubtedly recall an instance where a project designed to help the community met with a barrage of criticism and ill will when the public heard about it. Miscommunication—or lack of communication altogether—is usually at the heart of such misunderstandings.
It might be hard for town officials to communicate efficiently and effectively with residents without first having a basic understanding of the actual construct of communication. Once there is an understanding, town officials can build and put into action a working public relations plan.

What is communication?
The most basic definition of communication is “the process by which one or more persons stimulates meaning in the mind of another by means of verbal and nonverbal messages.” Easy enough, but what does this mean? Simply put, communication is transmitting a message to another person or persons through words or actions (or both). In the communication process there should be a source (where the message comes from), a channel (how the message is transmitted, e.g., voice, hand gestures, newspapers, mailings, television), a receiver (the person who gets the message), and feedback (the reaction to the message). All four components—source, channel, receiver, and feedback—must be considered to craft a successful communication plan.

The Canadian Public Relations Society defines public relations as “the management function, which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.” Public relations is one particular form of communication.

Good public relations methods allow systems to inform the public about goals and to gain evaluative information. A water system should create a communication plan for getting information to the citizens and receiving feedback. Often, this may be done in conjunction with a larger, town-wide plan. According to the Model Institutions for Excellence (MIE) Communications Cookbook, a worthy plan should include:
• Goals—Define clearly what the system wants and plans to accomplish.
• Audience—Who is the system trying to inform?
• Messages—What does the system want the audience to know? Carefully think through what the content of messages will be.
• Implementation—How will systems convey messages to their audiences? What is the best way in which goals
will be achieved?
• Materials—Develop materials that will clearly state the message and capture the audience’s attention.
• Outcomes—Inform the public about what the expected outcomes are of plans implemented by the system.
With these simple facts in mind, officials can create a suitable public relations plan that will be the guide for all communication they present to the community.

Understanding the Public
To craft a good public relations plan, it is useful to learn how much people in the community understand about an issue and what they want. Surveys, of one type or another, are a good way to discover this.
Small community systems can gain useful information from their customers by surveying residents. There are numerous ways to do this, but some methods may not be efficient for small systems. “Face-to-face, person-to-person surveys are the best method to get the best results. If the organization doesn’t have the time, funding, and/or man power to do this, mailed surveys would be the best way to get the information officials may want,” said Keith Weber, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University.
Because face-to-face surveys might not be the most practical method for small systems, surveys can be sent to customers with monthly account statements. According to Royce A. Singleton, Jr. and Bruce Straits in their book Approaches to Social Research, mailed questionnaires are successful when they stress the importance of the survey to the responding citizens and they are easy to complete and return. Include postage-paid envelopes and keep questions short. Mailed surveys are beneficial because respondents are free to respond when it is convenient for them and they have more time to sufficiently think about their answers. Because there is no interviewer and responses are anonymous, residents responding will have more privacy and will be more inclined to be honest about issues.

To get better results, provide an incentive to complete the survey, such as offering to subtract a small amount from the customer’s bill if the survey is completed and returned. Although this may cost the system some money, the long-term benefits of knowing how customers feel about their service will be worth the minimal amount of money spent.Telephone surveys can also be conducted to gain valuable feedback. Systems that wish to conduct this type of survey must be cautious about a couple things. First, survey length must not be so long that it will bore the listener. Individuals become less likely to complete telephone surveys as the clock ticks. Also, open-ended questions are hard to work with when conducting this type of survey. While systems may want to get more information than close-ended (yes/no) questions can provide, open-ended questions take more time to complete and will offer a variety of answers that are difficult to generalize to the public as a whole.

Communicating Your Message
A good way officials of small communities can communicate is through the local newspaper. Announcements, system updates, and general information may be provided to a large part of the community through the print media. Town officials should develop a positive relationship with local reporters and editors in order to use editorial space in a way that keeps information between officials and the public flowing freely. (For more information about working with local media, see the article “Planing Now Improves Media Relations Later” in the Spring 2000 On Tap.)

The town should identify a spokesperson: someone who acts as a liaison between journalists and officials. This liaison should seek out space in local newspapers to present timely information to the public, perhaps in a column for the opinion-editorial section. The public can respond to weekly columns by writing letters to the editor. This offers an excellent, low-cost method of gaining the residents’ opinions. Other methods for communicating your message include: holding regular forums to solicit public input, developing a Web page, printing a newsletter, and taking advantage of free time on local radio and television. (See the article “Getting Citizens Involved.")

Keeping an Open Relationship
It is important for town officials to ensure that the relationship between systems and residents is always open and efficient. David Kirk, an independent corporate communication consultant, offers the following strategies in the Public Relation Society of America’s (PRSA) publication, Public Relations Tactics:
• Build a list (database) of residents affected by the system’s services.
• Determine productive areas of questioning—narrow the scope of questions to what you specifically want to know. Don’t ask questions if you can’t do anything with the answers.
• Select the right methods for gathering information (see section above).
• Invite the audience to take part in the system’s processes. For example, invite people to town official’s meetings in order to become more informed and up to date about current actions and plans.
• Gather the information desired through selected methods. Kirk suggests that professional assistance is useful during this part of the process to make sure that information is reliable.
• Use results gained to make adjustments to how the system is being run. Useful feedback from citizens can help to improve system processes and result in happy customers.
• Share results with the residents. It is important to make citizens aware that officials listened and took into account suggestions offered.

The strategies outlined above will not only help small community officials get information to the public more efficiently, but will also help systems gain feedback from the public. The bottom line is to keep the lines of communication open. It’s up to the town to provide information to the community and it’s imperative that the town listen to what the community says.

For more information about public relations go to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Web site at There you will find PRSA’s publications, “Public Relations Tactics” and “The Public Relations Strategist,” posted along with directories of public relations service companies and selected individuals in the field.