Expanded Core Mission for the Municipal PIO

Rejuvenating the Body Politic: 

An Expanded Core Mission for the Municipal Public Information Officer

by Lawrence E. McCullough
© Lawrence E. McCullough 2010

* This paper was first published in Public Management (July, 2012,Vol. 94, No. 6)


“I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
   — Grover Norquist, Republican Party political operative

    IT IS DOUBTFUL that a majority of Americans share the calculated disdain for our democratic governing institutions cited in the remark above.

     But there is little doubt that similar hostile sentiments are actively circulated and promoted by growing numbers of political candidates and strategists in an effort to influence public thought and voting behavior.

      Anyone involved in local government administration can attest that the demand for services reaching a broad range of citizens is at its highest level in decades

      Yet often when citizens are receiving efficient government services, they may think they are not; this misperception is compounded by the steady stream of negativity about government performance coursing throughout the mass media.

      In point of fact, government in the United States has always been an exercise in large-scale public involvement. For every lone wolf Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett blazing a trail through the wilderness, there was an entire community of settlers following behind, creating the social and political infrastructure of schools, churches, businesses, roads and laws that shaped the nation.

      Popular mythology aside, American democracy is at its strongest when citizens take an informed and active interest in their government; that democracy is most vulnerable when citizens see their government as an entity separate from them.

      Restoring a balanced perspective to the issue has increasingly become an important task for the municipal Public Information Officer (PIO). The PIO is a frontline bulwark in resisting efforts by special interest groups to anger, alienate and disenfranchise voters.

      No longer is it enough for the PIO to simply keep citizens informed about what their local government does; it is now critical that the PIO help citizens understand their own role and responsibility in shaping that government for the community’s common good.

      Which is no mean task in an era that frequently sees contests on “reality television” and the internet draw higher vote tallies than the number of ballots cast in some statewide political elections.

      Many PIOs already view their core job mission as creating positive public relations on behalf of the municipality and its officials — an outward push of civic news and information to be received by media and citizens.

      That mission must now expand with publicity initiatives that pull inward. . . initiatives that not only keep citizens informed about their community but persuade them to be more strongly connected to and interested in improving the community welfare.

      How does the PIO accomplish this beyond the routine issuance of news and information? By utilizing every civic news announcement or civic-sponsored occasion as an opportunity to advance the message that government works better when citizens look at the municipal sphere and see themselves as active participants.

       In effect, the PIO designs each piece of publicity outreach to contain an ongoing subtext layer that highlights benefits of government and citizen partnerships.

      Here are six areas where the PIO can help citizens attain a clearer sense of place within the larger community:

1)  The municipality spearheads or visibly supports community fundraising projects. These are projects that remind citizens they can make a difference as individuals in addressing a community problem.

      A veterans monument and community landmark needs money for repairs; the PIO makes sure the campaign is posted on the municipal website and mentioned in news releases and creates and distributes flyers to merchants, schools and other residents via inclusion in newsletters or tax mailers; feature articles are prepared on the campaign and its organizers and sent as releases to local media. After the money is raised and the monument is repaired, the PIO publicizes the unveiling ceremony with pre- and post-event media releases; perhaps the municipality even coordinates the ceremony.

      Another typical community donation project is financial assistance to families with catastrophic illness. Municipalities often provide in-kind donations of goods, venue, employee labor, equipment setup and other logistical support in aiding fundraising. The PIO’s resources are brought to bear in publicizing both the situation and the community’s efforts to help.

      Besides the obvious goal of raising funds for good causes, spreading the story of local people stepping forward to aid their neighbors reinforces the notion of grass-roots philanthropy as a normal first response; municipal involvement adds further endorsement to the concept of a community uniting to solving problems.

2)  The municipality supports programs for special populations. If the municipality sponsors specific recreation, arts or educational activities for special populations such as children, seniors, the disabled, veterans, immigrants, new parents, etc., the PIO finds ways to highlight these programs in terms of how their benefits reach many citizens throughout the entire community — not just the special populations. Even if these programs are not sponsored by the municipality, the PIO should still seek ways to incorporate them into the municipality’s publicity outreach via newsletters, web links, calendars, PSAs.

Most citizens have a personal link with someone in a special population category; the PIO’s task is to show that “special populations” are not isolated elements of the community and could well be a neighbor or co-worker. In this instance, familiarity does not breed contempt, but rather knowledge and respect.

3)  The municipality celebrates community achievers. Publicly recognizing notable individuals is a useful method for nurturing community connectedness. Municipalities can create large-scale tribute ceremonies such as Community Pride Day or Volunteer Recognition Day that garner hundreds or thousands of participants. Just as effective over a long term are smaller proclamation ceremonies held at regular intervals to honor community achievers:  youth who excel in academics, arts and athletics; individuals whose job or avocation provide exceptional service to the public; police, fire, EMS, civilian rescuers; volunteer caregivers at social service agencies and hospitals.

Municipal involvement bestows an elevated level of affirmation, and the individual’s achievements are seen in context with improving the community’s quality of life — always a goal of municipal government.

4)  The municipality promotes local history and culture. Destination venues and events presenting local history and cultural activities provide economic benefits from visitors while offering opportunities for citizens to become involved as volunteers and supporters. The PIO can spotlight these activities with brochures, flyers, calendars, PSAs and feature articles that point out citizen participation in planning and organizing.

Having the municipality seen as being a part of a community’s distinctive “character” reinforces the idea among citizens that the community has an identity in which they share and can define.

5)  The municipality assists people coming together in crisis. PIOs are trained to deal with crises resulting from fires, storms, building collapses, traffic accidents and other disasters; the presence of the municipality during these episodes is a given. However, there are numerous other community crises that occur on a less spectacular scale and do not immediately abate:  a rise in homelessness and food insecurity, evolution of criminal youth gangs, upsurges in domestic violence and other personal crimes, health issues affecting senior citizens, a loss of a major employer.

The PIO can issue news releases that highlight the cooperation between the municipality and other community partners to address the problem. To support food pantries, a standard tagline or graphic can be added to all publicity, urging citizens to bring a non-perishable food item to a concert, a football game, a council meeting, the library, the polling place — any civic event or building collecting donations.

To support anti-bias crime education, the PIO can devise a slogan such as “Everybody’s Welcome in Our Town” and make sure it appears on all municipal publicity materials. If the community is suffering high unemployment, the PIO can utilize municipal publicity channels to provide phone and online links to job hotlines or job counseling/training centers.

Whatever the crisis, the publicity outreach must emphasize the idea that the community and municipality are working together to solve the problem — and that the problem will not be satisfactorily solved without citizens and government working in tandem.

6)    The municipality encourages innovative ideas and cost-saving services. Citizens are always alert to stories citing government waste or excessive red tape. To combat the misperception that the public sector is less concerned with fiscal austerity than the private sector, the PIO issues frequent updates on how the municipality works hard to save taxpayer dollars by implementing new procedures, purchasing more efficient equipment, providing additional employee training, sharing services with other municipalities.

News releases and articles for municipal media channels can be prepared that offer a glimpse of how various municipal departments operate, emphasizing the quantity and quality of work successfully accomplished by Public Works, Engineering, Recreation, Planning and Development, Health and Human Services, Purchasing, Sanitation, Police and other departments.

The publicity should deliver the message not only by reporting statistics but by showing how department managers and staff take a personal interest in getting the job done and done well.

Letting citizens “peek behind the curtain” fosters a sense of transparency in the administrative process of government and combats the “faceless bureaucrat” stereotype — especially when the bureaucrat may also be a neighbor, fellow churchgoer or club member.

A cautionary note:  the PIO should not use these events or announcements for overt politicking or glorification of elected officials. The municipality will likely have some role in most community improvement efforts, and the decision to publicize them will flow naturally from this involvement.

      In this time of escalating anti-government rhetoric, citizens are tempted to view themselves as apart from government. In truth, citizens are their government — for better or for worse. They must be encouraged to believe that they can contribute to positive change in their community by helping local government do its job better.

      The PIO is the public relations professional who must help the client (the municipality) find innovative ways to assure client customers (citizens) that they are being well-served and given maximum value for their investment (taxes). . . and then motivate those customers to feel as if they should enhance the value of those services by offering their own time and money to promote the client to other customers.

      That would be a hard sell in the for-profit business milieu, where corporate-customer loyalty ends when payment changes hands.

      But in the public realm, citizens who feel better informed about their government are more likely to feel connected to a larger community identity that promotes the inclusive concept of a higher social good. . . which in turn increases the chance they will take on a greater commitment toward community stewardship and be less susceptible to feelings of alienation, apathy and helplessness.

      And for those who believe our American heritage of freedom and democracy deserves a better fate than being flushed down the bath drain of history, that’s a good thing.

      Thinking globally inevitably starts with local action. It is the municipal PIO that can give that action its initial impetus, direction and drive.   

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