POLITICAL ACUMEN TOOLKIT:
Politics are performed in the public domain and as a result, are loved by the media. Media, whether it be formal news institutions, online reporters/bloggers, or the commentary of online social networks, act as a check and balance for elected officials by “keeping them honest.” This can either be a good or bad thing depending on a CAO’s political acumen and ability to work with media representatives. This section offers advice on:
Managing Media Relationships
An administration’s relationship with local media is one of the most important relationships that can be cultivated by a CAO. Positive relationships with reporters and news outlets assist municipalities in three ways:
- It ensures that when there is negative news coverage, the municipality’s input is given positive consideration in the report.
- It also allows Administration to use the media to the community’s advantage when there is a need to get information out to residents.
- It supports the foundational planning for emergency preparedness where media will be used as a conduit to stakeholders in a crisis situation.
For these reasons, the communications strategy for your municipality should include media coverage as a key tactic. In addition to required public notices, media outlets should be used to provide exposure to important initiatives or changes in the community, especially if they will have a significant impact on the public. Building rapport with these organizations will allow you to get editorial content to speak to key issues facing your municipality at no cost. If this relationship is not there, your municipality may be forced to rely on advertising content, which is less likely to receive attention.
Media should always be treated with respect. Doing so increases the probability that they will reciprocate and treat Administration and Council with deference. Get on the bad side of a reporter, and it is more likely for your municipality to be reflected negatively in any news coverage. As a sign of good faith, it can also be a good strategy to reach out to reporters before they contact you occasionally. This shows that you are genuine and willing to share information, when appropriate.
Talking to the Media
Every municipality should have a communications policy in place that outlines who is authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the municipality. Most often, this includes Council, the CAO, and in larger municipalities, a Director of Communications. In some communities, Council may prefer the CAO to speak on behalf of the municipality. However, as a general rule, the head of Council should be doing the majority of the talking. As most CAOs will tell you, it is not usually a good thing if the CAO is ending up in the paper more than the Mayor. As Siegel notes, CAOs are leaders in the shadows: “things that work well are invisible” and “media take an interest only when things go wrong” (2015, p.3). While CAOs should be familiar with the media, representing the municipality is better left to elected representatives.
All staff members should be familiar with these media protocols and understand what their boundaries are. Always remember that nothing is “off the record.” Any information you provide formally or informally to a journalist becomes part of their arsenal of potential editorial content. If you have a communications team, use them for support in developing messaging that can be used with the media and preparing for interviews.
It is especially important to designate a specific media spokesperson during crisis situations to ensure consistent messaging. It can also be helpful to schedule media briefing times. This allows staff to stay focused on what needs to be done to support the emergency instead of fielding media requests. If there is an emergent situation, the spokesperson can always call the media together.
If your municipality frequently talks to the media it might be a good to offer media training to those authorized to speak for the municipality. There are many consultants out there offering various types of media training in anything from developing messages for media through to full on-camera and radio training. Prices can also vary from a couple thousand to tens of thousands. Do a bit of research and pick what is best-suited to the needs of your municipality. When seeking out qualified media trainers look to identify a trainer who will customize training to meet the needs of your organization and not offer a “cookie cutter” training session. Training should include the opportunity for on-camera mock interviews with critiques for each individual.
- Siegel, D. Leaders in the Shadows: The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers.
Before the Interview
• Interviews are opportunities
Media interviews are opportunities to present your municipality’s key messages to the public. Whenever possible, know who the interviewer is and what they want to discuss. Find out how long the final piece is likely to be. For television and radio, ask if it will be a live interview or prerecorded and if it will be a phone or in-studio interview. This will help guide you on how to plan your responses. If there is time, research the audience of the publication or station they work for, and prepare by reviewing key messages and anticipating questions in advance.
• Know your audience
When developing key messages, consider the point of view of the audience. Do they have any concerns you need to address? When we are passionate about a topic, we believe everyone else shares our viewpoint, but this is often not the case. Remember to use the interview as an opportunity to educate your audience on the position your municipality is taking and why you are taking that position.
• Deadlines and Requesting Questions in Advance
Reporters often work to tight deadlines. Because of this, you should ask what their deadline is first. Once you know their timeline, it is reasonable to ask for some time to gather all the facts. While not always possible, it can be helpful to try to find out the angle or subject matter of the story prior to responding. One strategy that is often successful is to ask the journalist to send you the question(s), so you can get back to them when you have more time in your schedule to respond. However, when you ask for more time, it is imperative that you follow up within the agreed upon timeline as the story will run with or without your input.
• Preparing Key Messages
Prepare up to three key messages you want to share with the media. Practice these messages and make sure they are clear and concise; do not leave room for interpretation. Key messages should be developed with your audience in mind. For example, if you are talking about a municipal tax issue that is impacting residents, put yourself in their shoes as you select keywords. A message map can act as a guide and help you focus your messages. A template has been included as a downloadable resource in this section.
During the Interview
• Start of the Interview
Introduce yourself, be polite, smile and shake hands. If your interview is being taped, make sure you ask the reporter if you can say and spell your full name and position. This will help ensure the agency does not make any errors when they put your interview on the air.
• Follow the ABC Method
Acknowledge the question.
Bridge using phrases like: “Thank you for that question, but what matters most right now is…,” “It would be more correct to say…,” “While that may be true, it is more important to …,” etc.
Content (deliver your key messages).
• Dead Air
When talking to journalists, always remember that you do not need to fill dead air. They will leave pauses in the conversation to get you to speak more on the topic. Remember to stick to your key messages. The reporter will move to the next question when it is clear you have nothing further to say.
Similarly, journalists will often ask if there is anything else you would like to add at the end of the interview. Try not to get caught by this and provide unnecessary information. Instead, use this question to reiterate your two to three main points and end the interview on a positive note.
• Leading Questions
Reporters will often ask “leading questions.” These might be questions starting with “What if …,” “How come…,” “Suppose this…,” etc. Do not dignify anything you cannot confirm and do not repeat the negative or leading phrase when you answer the question. If you say it, the piece may be edited to seem as though you agreed with the statement.
• “No Comment” is Never a Comment to Make
“No comment” is never a good response. Saying this implies that the question is valid, but you do not want to answer it. The public can also perceive this as guilt or avoidance of an issue. Instead, say why you are unable to respond (e.g. confidentiality, privacy, still assessing the situation, etc.). If possible, provide a timeline for when the information might be available.
• To Respond or not to… That is the Question
Finally, as the CAO, you need to evaluate when to respond to the media and when it is best not to. When a municipality comments on a story, the story gains more authority. Because of this, it is sometimes better not to say anything and let the story fade away. However, if it could appear like the municipality is avoiding a contentious issue by not responding, this may not be the best strategy. Assessing this requires political acumen and a thorough evaluation of all the implications.
• Nothing is Ever “Off the Record”
Anything you tell the media is part of the public domain. Asking them to keep something “off the record” does not change this, and they can use any information you provide at any point.
A brief Media Interview Checklist has been included as a downloadable resource to this section to help you keep these pointers in mind.
“There is no such thing as a bad question – only bad answers”
After the Interview
After the interview has finished, do not continue talking about the issue. You never know when a microphone may still be on capturing your post-interview comments. Instead, thank the reporter and ask them if they have everything they need.
If they have requested follow up information, give them your business card or that of your communications team, and invite them to email any follow-up questions. Ask them when the piece is planning to air or be published. If it is taped, ask them if they can send you the clip when finished for your retention or a link to where it will be posted.
Be polite and cordial throughout. Journalists have a job to do – always remember they are a conduit to help you deliver important information to your stakeholders who are also your court of public opinion.
- Administration & Council
- Residents & Ratepayers
- Provincial & Federal
CAMA is a non-profit association open to all senior managers dedicated to improving municipalities in Canada.
© Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators
Canadian Association Municipal Administrators
PO Box 128, Station A
Fredericton, NB E3B 4Y2
CAMA is a non-profit association open to all senior managers dedicated to improving municipalities in Canada.
Canadian Association Municipal Administrators
PO Box 128, Station A
Fredericton, NB E3B 4Y2
© Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators
Social Media Use
Social media has become an intrinsic part of the social fabric of our society. What was once seen as a fad that would pass is now here to stay. Not only that, it has taken over as an indispensable communication tool for organizations in all sectors to reach their audiences. Municipalities are not immune from its impacts and it has become an essential means of sharing information with residents and ratepayers. Indeed, you are more likely to reach a larger segment of your audience through a well-followed Facebook page or Twitter account than you are printing a news article. Not only that, following community groups on social media can help keep your administration’s political radar tuned to what is going on in your community, and in doing so, build your political acumen in the public domain.
One of the key benefits of social media for municipalities is that it allows you to have a two-way dialogue with your ratepayers on important matters in a timely and honest fashion. Individuals are more likely to be candid from behind a screen than face-to-face, and therefore, social media has become an essential tool for public engagement and learning what your citizens truly feel about an issue or topic at hand. It also provides a venue for keeping residents updated during emergencies and, in our modern world, is the most effective way of notifying citizens of relevant information or public hearings/meetings.
However, the online communications space does not come without its own pitfalls and challenges. “Fake news” and false information can spread quickly and easily on social networks, with very little that can be done to stop the proliferation of attention-grabbing yet inaccurate information that makes its way to the internet through gossip and rumour. Even worse is when negative, yet accurate information takes hold and becomes the topic of the day.
What is a municipality’s best defence against misinformation? Developing a strong and active social media presence that is able to effectively reach the public.
For municipalities, social media is a resource to invest in. Like a fire truck that sits in the hall unused most days of the year, but is extremely valuable when it is needed, social media is a tool that may generate minimal interest on most days, but can play a vital role when a critical notice regarding public safety needs to reach residents. A case in point is the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfires where social media played a significant role in keeping residents safe during the mass evacuation. When asked two years later what he thought about the use of social media in that emergency, former Fire Chief Darcy Allen said “it worked” (Wood, 2018). Because of this, it is highly recommended that municipalities use social media and establish their social media presence early on. Building active social media accounts and establishing a following of residents now, ensures you are ready to go when you really need it in support of an issue or a crisis.
Part of having an effective social media presence is providing the resourcing, mostly staff time, to allow this to happen. Often social media ends up as an add-on to somebody’s already full-time job. Bringing on somebody with social media experience as part of your communications team or sending a staff member to social media training can be a valuable addition to your organization. However, there are also many experts available who can provide support on a contracted basis.
Social Media Best Practices
For municipalities participating in the world of social media, it is important to provide information regularly, early on, transparently, and honestly. It is also crucial to address the negative commentary in addition to positive.
• Post Regularly
Social media is designed for regular updates and communications. Social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have taken a stand against mismanaged and underused pages that were created but rarely get used. Moreover, algorithms have specifically been built to weed out content from organizations that rarely post or do not provide quality information.
This means that if your municipality only posts once a month (or less), only ever uploads content from other sites (e.g. shares from one social media site to another or links to other sites), or does not create posts that your followers engage with, your posts are unlikely to appear in the newsfeed of your residents. Social platforms want to create a positive experience for users that is not inundated by low-quality, spam-like posts. If it is not interesting and not receiving attention, it may not be seen. Furthermore, not responding to inquiries that come through your social media channels will further discredit your online reputation and presence in social networks.
Best practices in social media management include posting at least one to two times per week on each platform and responding to questions in a timely fashion. It is also important to respond to both positive and negative comments. While it is easy to accept praise and offer gratitude, it is equally valuable to address criticism and offer explanation, information, apology, or resolution.
• Communicate Early and Often
In an emergency, or even in the day-to-day operation of an organization, it is easy to get caught up in work and forget to tell stakeholders what is going on. Even professional communicators are guilty of this. However, it is critical to remain in control of the information about your organization to the greatest extent possible.
Whenever possible, you should be the first to inform the public of new regulations or policies that impact them, and you should provide early and ongoing communication during emergencies. Doing this will help establish your municipality’s social media channels as the authority for information. Providing updates after the initial communication is also important for retaining this trust and ensuring that the information you share is prioritized over other information being circulating on the internet.
Even if you do not have all of the information and facts, it is more important to say that and communicate what you do know with your residents and ratepayers, than to avoid the conversation and let the rumour-mill take hold. Particularly in emergencies where people may be afraid for their safety, it is crucial to provide any public information available sooner rather than later. Even if it is as simple as a holding statement saying that something has happened, emergency services have responded and are addressing the situation, and more information will be provided as it becomes available, it is better to establish your municipality as the source of information than to stay silent. Alternatively, if there is another authority that should be providing information, it is equally important to ensure your residents and ratepayers are directed to those channels (e.g. fire department, police, etc.) instead of your own.
• Transparency and Honesty
There is always a small amount of hesitation that comes with sharing information to a venue as open to the public as social media. This can create reluctance on the part of those approving the messaging to be as transparent and honest as possible for fear that whatever is said will be misinterpreted or taken the wrong way. However, with the rapid speed of information sharing in our modern world, it is necessary to be as transparent and honest as possible in all of your online communications. If you do not say it, somebody else will.
• Addressing the Negative Head-On
Social media has become infamous for “mean tweets,” online rants, and more seriously, online bullying. There is something about the false security of a screen and a keyboard that allows individuals to say what they genuinely feel, often in a less than polite way. This can make social media one of the primary sources for learning about criticism toward your Council and your Administration.
It can be tempting to ignore the negative, attribute it to those crazy residents who only want to vent or complain, and move on. However, with every negative comes a positive. It provides your municipality with the chance to learn more about resident concerns and is the perfect opportunity to educate the public on municipal initiatives and policies. Better yet, it allows you to inform ratepayers of the accomplishments and actions of Administration and Council to address an issue. Even taking the time to apologize for someone’s negative experience can go a long way toward building your community’s trust in its Administration and, in turn, its Council. Anything you can do to support the positive perception of the municipal organization will demonstrate your political aptitude to your Council.
Social Media Strategies for Smaller Municipalities
For smaller municipalities, it can be challenging to keep up with social media, especially if it is being done off the side of one employee’s desk. Here are some strategies to keep your accounts active:
• Contract Someone
Working with a consultant who has training in social media to develop a social media strategy and manage your posts can help alleviate the workload from you and your staff. Not only will experts in this area plan out quality content, they will also help make sure resident inquiries get answered, and your accounts are properly managed.
• Use Automatic Response Tools
The messaging systems on many social media sites allow you to set up automatic responses. These auto-replies can say anything from “Thank you for contacting us. We will respond to your inquiry in 1-2 business days,” to “Thank you for your inquiry. We check this account every Friday. If you require more immediate assistance, please contact the municipality at ____.” Automatic replies help keep your response times low and let the public know when they can expect an answer.
• Give Access to Others
Social media platforms allow you to set up other users with various permission levels. It can be helpful to provide access to key individuals in other departments (public works, recreation, emergency management, etc.) so that they can post about their own events when needed. This also helps ensure that if there is important information that needs to get to the public immediately (e.g. a water main break), the departments addressing it can post about it directly without having to take the time to contact another individual. Giving access to others will require your municipality to develop detailed social media policies and procedures to ensure everyone knows the rules about what can and cannot be posted and maintains a similar tone/style when representing the municipality.
• Be Clear About the Purpose of Your Pages
If your municipality does not have the time or resources to post regularly, make sure you are clear to the public about the intent of your social media pages. For example, you may only use your page to provide important notices and emergency updates. If this is the case, state this in the description and ask your followers to also sign-up to be notified about your posts to ensure they see them. If you will not be checking messages regularly, set up an auto-reply to inform the public and direct them to contact you another way.
• Be Strategic in the Platforms You Choose to Use
Every social media site is good for different forms of communication, and there is no need to use them all. For example, Facebook is good for events, news and other regular updates. Twitter is effective for brief but important communications and for sharing links. It has also become a go-to platform for emergency communications. Instagram is more visual in nature and therefore requires captivating images to accompany every post. However, Instagram does not allow you to put links in your comments and therefore is not ideal for sharing articles or connecting to other websites. YouTube can be an excellent resource for sharing informational videos. Evaluate what each platform does and only choose to use those that will serve a strategic purpose for your municipality.
Social Media Policy & Guidelines
Social media has become a mainstay of municipal communications, and because of this, it is necessary that every municipality have a policy that addresses the use of social media by the organization as well as by elected officials and administrative staff. In addition to defining what can and cannot be posted on the municipality’s social media accounts and guidelines for engaging with the public, this policy should outline protocols for Council and staff when it comes to sharing municipal information on their personal accounts. While there should be no concerns with individuals sharing information from municipal pages on their own accounts, it needs to be made clear that sharing personal opinions regarding municipal matters is unacceptable. Social media policies can be either embedded within an overarching communications policy or enacted as a separate document.
Providing social media training can help clarify what is and is not acceptable. Training should outline why, when and how to use social media. Often it is recommended that councillors create a separate page for their office that they can use to engage ratepayers and share information. This helps keep a division between the personal and professional activities of an elected official.
However, it is important to stress that it is virtually impossible for public figures, such as elected officials, to remove their personal lives from the public eye. When you have a public role, you must act like you are always operating in that role. Individuals in these positions are never “off the clock,” and there is no ability to put on the “private citizen” hat and not be under scrutiny.
Anything that is said, whether it be on a personal or professional social media account, will be seen as attached to an individual’s public role. For this reason, it is imperative that those in the public sector be mindful of their presence in the social realm. Once it is online, it is forever accessible there by anyone. This applies equally to municipal staff and as it does councillors. Once you are connected to the municipality in any way, you are seen as representing that organization and therefore should also be attentive to your online activities. While you may not face legal recourse for careless tweets or posts, you can lose your social license to govern or the authority to act on behalf of your community.