Being an elected official is no easy task, especially for those who serve at the local level, such as a County Commissioner. With the long hours and low pay, County Commissioners are frequently asked to vote on such hot-button issues as zoning, school funding, where to site a new landfill, or economic incentives. All too often, these issues potentially negatively impact neighbors, friends, family members and co-workers, making for uncomfortable trips to the grocery store or to the little league field to watch your child or grandchild play.
For county commissioners, there is nowhere to hide once you have made a difficult decision. But trying to hide from a controversial vote is perhaps the worst tact you could take anyway. Instead, a commissioner should take steps to explain to the citizens exactly why a decision was made and how it will ultimately wind up benefitting the community.
By taking proactive steps to get ahead of the story, commissioners can make sure citizens have all the facts that went into the decision. You may not get the citizens to agree with your decision, but at least they will know why you made it and what your intentions were.
There are simple steps an elected official can take to help ensure their side of a story gets out. The most important step is to develop a professional relationship with the local media. This doesn’t mean you have to become Facebook friends, send them holiday cards or invite them to your child’s birthday party. But it does mean that you should treat the reporter with respect, understand what your role is in the process, and always be responsive to their requests for information and comments.
Remember that the reporter is your conduit to the public at large, and cooperating with the reporter on a story – even a controversial one – will help get your side of the story out. In this day of understaffed newsrooms and 24/7 news cycles, reporters are often working multiple beats while being asked to post on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites.
The competition to be the first to break a story is fierce, thanks to the ever-increasing amount of citizen journalists (i.e. bloggers). You should always be respectful of a reporter’s deadlines, too. Remember that respect is a two-way street.
It is important to remember what your role is in the news-gathering process. As a county commissioner you – and not the reporter – are the expert. Your first goal is to help the reporter understand why a decision was made so they can in turn educate their readers (your constituents).
Don’t assume a reporter knows the issue. The local government beat is one of the first beats given to new reporters, and if a reporter is coming from a different state, he or she may be accustomed to a local government system that is completely different. It is up to you to help the reporter understand how your local government system works so they won’t make any errors when reporting a story.
Reporters will appreciate any help you provide, especially in making sure they publish accurate and verifiable facts. It doesn’t mean they won’t write about the controversial aspects of a story, and it doesn’t mean they won’t interview somebody from a citizens group or other organization that is opposed to your decision, but it should ensure that your side of the story is told.
It will also pay dividends down the road because reporters are always looking for good sources. The next time a citizen calls a reporter with another example of waste by their county government, the reporter might just call you to get the real story before deciding whether or not to write an article.
The next step is to develop a series of talking points about the issue. The key is to focus on the top two or three points and ignore some of the less-important factors. For some issues, there might be dozens of reasons behind the choice, but it is important that the commissioners settle on the top two or three key reasons for the decision. Each commissioner might have different reasons for why they voted, so it is important for a consensus to be reached on what are the key components and then for the board to stay on that message.
There are several guidelines to follow when developing your message. A message should communicate a benefit and describe a shared value. This is important because it enables you to make the connection with your citizens, to let them know how this decision will directly benefit them and the community at large.
Your message should also be short, concise and to the point. You need to be able to articulate this message in one or two sentences, because that’s about how much time you will be given on the local news report. A study recently showed that the average sound bite on the national news is about nine seconds, down from 48 seconds in 1968. Broadcast stations are trying to cover many stories in a 30-minute broadcast, so they are spending less time on each individual story.
It is also important to humanize the message. If the Board of Commissioners adopts a new program that is designed to make the public school system better, think about how you say that. Which sounds better? A) This new program will improve the test scores in our public school system. Or, B) This new program will improve the quality of education for all the children in our community so they will have the chance at a promising future.
Your message should be boiled down to a handful of key points – and refer to them over and over.
If you are in an interview with a news reporter, it is okay to keep repeating yourself. Eventually the reporter will figure out that the points you keep repeating are what you feel are the important points.
It is also important to remember that a message is not about you, and a message is not a goal or a statistic. Statistics and facts can help support your message, but they are not the message in and of themselves.
The final step is to take the story to the citizens. Commissioners should be prepared to answer for the decision immediately. In most cases, reporters will be present at the meeting and will expect to be able to get some reaction from the board immediately after the meeting.
In this instance, it would be important to designate one commissioner – presumably the Board’s appointed or elected chairperson – to serve as the official spokesperson. It is a lot easier to ensure the consistency of a message if only one person is delivering the message.
For controversial stories, it is likely that there will have already been reports in the local press about the issue because much of the mainstream media coverage of local government these days focuses on corruption and controversy. Newspapers in particular are trying to find a niche to help them survive, and government waste and abuse is always a top seller.
Because of this development, another key lesson for elected officials to learn is that you do not have to rely on the traditional news media to tell your story. In this day of 24/7 news cycles, counties can become their own media outlet. Consult with your public information officer to develop a press release, with facts and figures that highlight the key factors for your decision. The release should be posted on the official county website, preferably before the local newspaper hits doorsteps the next morning.
It is also very easy to post a video interview with the designated spokesperson that explains the rationale for the decision. The good news is you do not have to invest in a lot of studio equipment to produce Internet-quality videos. Many cellular phones these days shoot high-definition video. A good digital camera that can take still photos and shoot HD videos can be had for around $500. Editing software, a light kit, a wireless microphone and other odds and ends are not expensive either. A little investment in equipment can produce big returns in terms of public relations and public information.
For the past several years, the National Association of County Information Officers (NACIO) has hosted a workshop at the National Association of Counties (NACo) Annual Conference on how to educate the public about a controversial decision. One of the questions we are always asked is for advice on dealing with negative press.
Unfortunately, negative press is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be devastating. By following the tips and guidelines listed above, elected officials can play a key role in helping the citizens better understand why a controversial decision was made.