Photo of man recording a video on his phone

Over the past ten years, the five of us filled key roles in the Office of Communication in Prince William County, Virginia. During that time, we facilitated a dynamic shift from a traditional public information office to a strategic communication office focused on citizen engagement.

While each of us have been promoted to new opportunities, in this article, we reflect on our time together to share some lessons learned in our transformation from public information to citizen engagement.

Be Clear About the Goal

If you want to engage the public on an issue, start with articulating the goal. What do you ultimately hope to accomplish? Do you want citizen input? Do you want them to shape policy? Or do you just want to inform them about an issue? Strategic communication requires a clear articulation of the desired outcome. How to accomplish that goal requires creativity and insight into what motivates your audience to engage.

A great example is the dreaded request for a press release. Every public information officer has faced that moment when a department head or elected official asks for a press release to go out. Certainly press releases are easy enough to craft and distribute, but when we would ask, “what is your goal for putting out the release?” they were often baffled. “I want to get the word out about this,” was generally the response. But if you want to reach the public, a press release isn’t going to cut it. Let’s face it, when is the last time you sought out a press release from an organization other than the one you work for?

Instead of a press release, write the news article you would want to come from the release. Write it in AP style and be strictly informative without trying to persuade your audience one way or the other. Use quotes from elected leaders or staff. Again, write it as a reporter would write it. Then, publish these articles on a news section of your website. And most importantly, send the article to your local news media outlets, and tell them they can use the content as they wish. What we found is, more often than not, the media outlets ran the articles exactly how we had written them. Remember, they need content, and they have probably had to cut back on the number of reporters they can hire. Free content professionally written to inform about an issue is welcomed by most online outlets.

Create a Personality

If you want to increase public engagement, then your content is going to have to be more engaging. Start with a persona. If you speak like “government,” you are going to lose the public. Think about the character and personality of your community and create a voice that can break through the noise and reach your target market. For larger organizations with multiple departments and agencies, you may have to prepare personas for each department that are somewhat unique. Ultimately, the personality should come through in your content and tone.

Don’t be afraid to use contractions or first-person voice. Speak to the audience directly. If you’re reading this sentence, you see what I just did here. You won’t lose the audience. Instead, you might get them to continue reading, which is ultimately the point, right? If you are too formal, too much like “government,” you aren’t going to encourage public engagement. So, be uniquely you and take some risks!

Take Risks

Too often, government organizations are afraid to try something that might be too far out there because of potential backlash from the public. However, in our experience, the vast majority of the public enjoys seeing creative messaging from their government. If the only thing keeping you from messaging to the public is a fear of backlash, then you are missing out on opportunities. Some things will fall flat to be sure. But other efforts will be wildly successful. Let the data and response tell you what is working and what isn’t. Track the analytics and listen to the responses. Ultimately, that is what should direct your future messaging.

A still frame of the emergency preparedness PSA video developed by Prince William County
A still frame of the emergency preparedness PSA video developed by Prince William County.
View the video at https://youtu.be/0R0xtNblVbs.

One example of taking a risk that we weren’t sure about was when our Office of Emergency Management asked us to produce a public service announcement (PSA) about an emergency preparedness kit. They wanted folks to know what needed to be in a preparedness kit and think about creating one. We knew that if we wanted people to watch the video and remember it, we needed something unexpected. So, we created a spoof newscast with a news correspondent rapping about what needs to be in a kit. We weren’t sure about it. And honestly, there were those in the community who asked why their tax dollars were being spent on this type of material. But what the data showed us was that people were engaging with the content. They were liking it, sharing it, and most importantly, they were remembering what needed to be in a preparedness kit.

Showcase the People in Government and the Community

Taking risks gives you the opportunity to present creative communication. It pushes you outside of the stereotypical government communication that most of the public tunes out. Yet, the one element of the content that truly engaged the public was showcasing people in government and the community. Instead of talking about a business, show the business. Instead of sending out a notice about a park opening, show people enjoying the park. Talk with them. Get reactions from the community and share those reactions.

Consider your communication in today’s COVID-dominated world: do you send out a notice of testing sites and vaccination clinics? Or do you take a photo of a site, talk to people who work at the clinic, and get comments from residents about how easy it is to get a test or about potential side effects of the vaccine? Do you follow up with them and see how they are doing after their second dose and find out what types of activities they plan to do now that they are vaccinated?

These are the types of activities that the public will engage with. They want to hear from and see people in their community. They become more engaged with government when the government is seen as people serving them instead of an impersonal bureaucracy of rules and protocols. If you want to engage with the public, give them people to engage with.

In-House Talent Matters

Most of us never worked in local government prior to joining the communication office. In fact, the thought that there might be an opportunity for a graphic designer, a newspaper journalist, a video producer, or a web developer and social media manager in government really never crossed our minds. What we all can attest to is the fact that working for local government provides a genuine sense of purpose that we were looking for but never really found in the private sector. There are lots of folks with the skills and abilities needed to develop content that will help engage the community. The goal of local government is to seek them out.

When newspapers were shuttering their print editions, we hired a local journalist who was also a professional photographer. We reviewed our contracts instead of spending money on vendors who didn’t really know our message. We were able to add a position and hire an online communication manager to make certain our social media and web messaging was as effective as it could be. Lastly, as turnover occurred and we had opportunity to fill vacancies, we hired individuals with specific talents to enhance our communication initiatives. We brought on a graphic designer and we hired video producers who were used to working in the private sector in creative, fast-turnaround environments. Ultimately, we built a team that was able to perform the work that we often had to rely on others to carry out for us. We did so not by adding positions or increasing the budget. Rather, we reimagined how we used the resources already available to us by building a team that could produce content that would reach the community.

Be Active in the Community

Overall, public engagement is an art. If you are going to communicate in a specific medium (video, graphics, print, social media, etc.), then you need to make certain you have people with the talent to execute it effectively. Always focus on the goal of the message and have a true sense about what might work. Don’t be afraid to take risks, and always be true to the identity you set for the organization. Ultimately, there is no silver bullet to reaching the public. The most we can do is be present, tell our story, and be an active participant in conversations with the community. Only then will the public see government not as a bureaucracy, but as a member of the community and an equal voice with the people. Only then will we be able to truly engage with the public.

Headshot of co-author Jason Grant

 

JASON GRANT is the director of advocacy for ICMA and former communications director for Prince William County, Virginia. He has more than 20 years of experience in community engagement, strategic communication, and professional writing.

 

 

 

​ Headshot of co-author Nikki Brown

 

NIKKI BROWN is the assistant to the county executive for Prince William County, Virginia. She has more than 20 years of experience in strategic communications, as well as community and employee engagement.

 

 

 

​ Headshot of co-author Trevor Johnson

 

TREVOR JOHNSON is the marketing and communications director for Prince William County Economic Development, where he creates effective marketing strategies and crafts compelling stories that showcase the county as a prime business destination.

 

 

 

​ Headshot of co-author Shane Sears

 

SHANE SEARS has more than 20 years of experience in strategic communications and video production. He previously worked in broadcast video production and currently works as an employee engagement specialist for Prince William County.

 

 

 

​ Headshot of co-author Amir Wenrich

 

AMIR WENRICH is the assistant director of marketing and communications for Prince William County Parks and Recreation. He has over 17 years of experience in the direct marketing and communications field specializing in content development, advertising, and graphic design.

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