Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Public Relations Makes the Job Easier
Communicating Your Message
NDWC Graduate Research Assistant
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. Miscommunicationor
lack of communication altogetheris 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 componentssource, channel, receiver, and feedbackmust
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:
GoalsDefine clearly what the system wants and plans to accomplish.
AudienceWho is the system trying to inform?
MessagesWhat does the system want the audience to know? Carefully
think through what the content of messages will be.
ImplementationHow will systems convey messages to their audiences?
What is the best way in which goals
will be achieved?
MaterialsDevelop materials that will clearly state the message
and capture the audiences attention.
OutcomesInform 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 doesnt
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
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 customers 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 Americas (PRSA) publication, Public Relations
Build a list (database) of residents affected by the systems
Determine productive areas of questioningnarrow the scope of
questions to what you specifically want to know. Dont ask questions
if you cant do anything with the answers.
Select the right methods for gathering information (see section above).
Invite the audience to take part in the systems processes. For
example, invite people to town officials 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. Its up to the town to provide information to the community and
its 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 www.prssa.org. There you will find PRSAs
publications, Public Relations Tactics and The Public Relations
Strategist, posted along with directories of public relations service
companies and selected individuals in the field.