Government 101: City communicationsJul 01, 2022 11:43AM ● By Erin Dixon
By Erin Dixon | [email protected]
How do you know what is going on in your city? How often do you hear from your elected leaders? Where do you go when you have a question?
Most cities have employees that do similar jobs in other cities. There will always be someone to do finances, to keep track of city code, and someone who is the city recorder. All cities will have a council and a mayor.
Communication departments, however, come in all shapes and sizes. Philosophies on how best to communicate also vary.
“When we go to lunch as communications, we all have such different setups,” Eric Richards, communications director for Sandy City said. “I can’t keep track of them.”
Richards also said that in Provo there is a PIO (Public Information Officer) to handle communication in every department.
West Jordan has a team of three communication employees, though before 2021 there was only one. Sandy has four, though their population is approximately 30,000 fewer residents than West Jordan. Holladay has zero. Instead there are two employees who have double responsibility. Midvale has one communication employee, though Holladay and Midvale serve nearly the same size population.
Sandy looks at their communications department like any other business. “We run like an internal ad agency,” Richards said.
“We are the go-to for brand guardianship. We police brand. We are responsible if they need some new corporate identity, brainstorm campaigns, a video, or build a campaign [such as] Police Safe and Secure,” Richards said.
Sandy’s four employees, a director, a software engineer, a content media editor and a coordinator, serve all city departments. Some departments choose to have their own communications and will reach out to the public in different ways. Sandy’s Mayor office has its own PIO; City Council and a few departments have their own marketing teams.
With their four employees, and the occasional outside contract for video, the city posts almost daily to social media, designs and produces postcards on big topics, and controls a chatbot that quickly answers a resident's question.
“One of the best resources we have is Citizen Connect which won the Best of State award,” Richards said.
West Jordan’s philosophy is to build a bigger team and reach more residents. One strategy is to add a community outreach employee.
“My hope is that they are [Spanish speaking] because 25% of the city is either Hispanic or Latino,” Tauni Barker, communications director in West Jordan said. “They may speak English perfectly but I think there’s things we’re missing. And for certain we’re not talking to them.”
When it comes to interacting with residents, West Jordan would like to hear more from them and communication would be an equal responsibility.
“Ideally, the partnership would be 50/50,” Barker said. “Residents aren’t as engaged as we would like them to be. We have to go to them. The relationship is more 80/20.”
West Jordan recently launched a new website, sends emails about special events and initiatives, posts on Facebook, and has a text messaging service.
In addition to another employee, West Jordan wants to send out regular emails about what is going on in city council meetings.
“Ideally, the government should do as much education as possible,” Barker said. “I wish I could say we could do a government 101. We don’t have the staff bandwidth to do that. You end up tackling the things that are right in front of you.”
Holladay does not have a dedicated communications department. Stephanie Carlson, the city recorder, manages the website, posts on social media, and sends out emails. Holly Smith, the assistant city manager, approves any message that is going to the residents and makes sure the message is consistent.
If the city wants to do any major projects, such as redesign the website or launch an education campaign to the community, they will hire outside communication experts.
Mailing information to houses is difficult. Unlike most other cities, Holladay does not manage their own water supply. That service is contracted out. Because of this, the city does not have access to who lives where.
“If you want information you have to come to us,” Smith said.
Since the pandemic, and because of the rise of social media and digital communication, there is more work to do. “People are tuning in more,” Carlson said. “People were at home more and could see what was going on.”
The city recently launched an app for residents to find basic information.
“It’s not very robust but it gives basic information,” Smith said.
For the future, “We’re reaching as many people as we can, for transparency,” Smith said.
“We did a community survey five years ago. The Journal was the No. 1 source of communication. That’s where we reach the most people.
“We’ll do another survey this fall.”
All cities that spoke with the City Journals confirm that if a resident calls the city with a question or a statement, they are directed to the right department to get the answers they are looking for.
“Sometimes I’ll spend 30 minutes to an hour answering one question,” Barker from West Jordan said.