March 5, 2009

New Communication Tools Are Needed as Traditional Media Declines

ONE OF the things that I have found to be true in our business is that the traditional means of sharing messages with the public is becoming more difficult. Press releases often don't get picked up by newspapers. The number of reporters covering the "city hall beat" has shrunk to almost nothing and many newspapers are struggling to keep the doors open. In this new era, government needs to be smarter about message delivery. It needs to find new ways to deliver information to the public.

We have experimented with new tools for information sharing. Maybe our first steps can be a guide for you to start thinking about new communication methods? Our tools and how we try to use them are briefly discussed below.

We use Twitter, a micro blogging tool to get out quick messages. Since Twitter limits the number of characters for a post to 140 characters, you must be brief.
But you can provide readers with a link to the "bigger story." Specifically, it helps us share deadlines, talk about work in progress and we often use it to cover important state and national election news.

We have two blogs. One is called Inside Elections and the other is this blog. On the elections blog we publish articles about our processes, procedures and practices - what's going on behind the scenes on a d
ay to day basis. Hopefully, sharing that kind of election information with the public can help strengthen voter confidence and at the same time increase transparency. This blog tries to offer ideas and stories that will spark the imagination of pubic sector leaders and lead to new approaches that can help solve old problems.

Our two web sites (here and here) not only have static information but they have interactive tools that help constituents transact business with our offices. On your web site be sure to provide visitors with RSS feeds which is basically a "subscription and clipping service" and don't forget to talk with your technology folks about designing content for mobile devices like the iPhone and Blackberry - and cell phones generally.

Our MySpace site contains information on our Student Poll Worker program. Our idea was to facilitate a conversation between the high school students that had a common interest in serving at the polls on Election Day. And finally, our YouTube space has instructional videos on election subjects.

Another project we tried was broadcasting our own show on cable TV. You can see some of that effort here.

In addition to sharing our messages with the tools listed above, we still send out press releases. We also go into the community and talk to real people on important topics and we invite the public in to our off
ices to view our processes and get acquainted with how their government works.

A planned future project is to develop an email distribution list. This will be used to communicate tailored messages to smaller, niche groups like specific homeowner groups or people interested in election audits, for instance.

In this new world, it is important to keep up with new ideas!

In this new world, it is important to keep up with new ideas! To accomplish that goal we attend seminars on civic engagement and new tools; members of our staff attend conferences and trade shows. We also tread about new concepts. Our current recommendations include Crowd Sourcing by Jeff Howe and The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. Each of those works talk about the power of involving people in the conversation. (A good example of how one public sector agency is taking advantage of this concept is discussed here).

And speaking of crowds, one thing that we tried is a "focus group." A focus group is nothing more than a group of people brought together to discuss a particular idea, product policy or whatever? Ask the group what works and what doesn't work - what they would like to see and how they would use it. You might be surprised at what you learn!

Traditional media outlets may not be serving your communication interests in the best way possible. And at the same time people want to interact with government in new and different ways. Government agencies need to reach out and try new communication tools and evaluate which of the new tools works and which should be disc
arded. It is an ongoing, evolutionary process and one size does not fit all.

Good luck on your journey!

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