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It’s Not What You Say, but Where They Heard It

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Adam Kuczynski
February 29, 2020

“It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” We’ve probably all heard that phrase, but what about, “It’s not what you say, but where they heard it.” Not as catchy, right?

For administrators and anyone who deals with the public-at-large, though, the latter might be a more important factor. For instance, a Pew Research poll indicated as much, when a majority of Americans said they get their science news from general news outlets (54%), but only 28% of adults believe general news outlets get the facts correct almost always or more than half of the time. A possible upside is that government agencies are trusted by about 29% of Americans to get the facts correct—the downside is that only 10% say they regularly get these facts from government agencies.

One must take this information with a grain of salt. It’s only one poll and there are probably other polls that suggest slightly different results. As such, it’s not necessarily predictive. However, that’s not the point. (Note: There are also some really great scholarly articles concerning this topic that I would recommend reading.)

Without diving too much into the data for this column, the topline results are certainly thought-provoking. This should serve as a potential red flag for administrators who wish to communicate to the public about any information of importance. Larger, often state-size and up, agencies seemingly realize this concept, and have the benefit of direct emergency-messaging systems (which have their own share of concerns regarding effectiveness). But what about mid-sized and smaller municipalities?

It leads to an interesting hypothetical dynamic: These smaller agencies must provide the information to the general news provider because they never established any other avenue. Assuming the media runs those facts, does this mean the local resident doesn’t trust the media to report government agencies’ facts (which they trust) correctly, or does it mean that the resident doesn’t know the government is one providing those facts, and therefore, just distrusts everything in the message?

Seemingly, these administrators, especially on the municipal-level, are boxed into an impossible paradigm: either put out a message that people will hear, but not trust, or put out a message that people will trust, but never hear.

Of course, this is overly simplified, but it allows for a valuable thought experiment. Take emergency preparedness, for example. On its surface, it is a prime example of what residents expect from their government:  to keep them safe. Administrators strive to do just that through a bevy of—often complex—initiatives, plans and agencies. There are obvious actions (like adequately staffing and equipping emergency responders), and the not-so-obvious ones (like conducting environmental studies gauging the impact of floods on infrastructure).

Yet, the success or failure of all this preparation depends to a great extent on the ability to communicate key facts and concerns to the community during an emergency. For example, I served as a local councilman in New Jersey when Hurricane (Superstorm) Sandy hit and we were pretty helpless as far as communication. It served as an extreme learning moment. Along with the downed trees, flooding, major property damage, sketchy cell phone service, gasoline shortages and failed traditional phonelines, there was also no electricity…for days and days.

Generators would work, as long as you had a connection to another source of fuel (see above gasoline shortage). Power was not only out for our residents (so they couldn’t receive updates), but also for a number of government agencies and buildings (meaning we couldn’t send them if we tried). So, we fell back on the tried-and-true method: town halls and public meetings. It quickly became apparent that we often advertised our town hall meetings on our public access television channel, direct mailings and via other electronic means. Needless to say, our information control was not as effective and efficient as hoped. This was true throughout the region.

Thankfully, this was the exception and not the rule. This disaster was immense and somewhat unique. Although, it didn’t stop residents from letting me know that they expected local agencies to somehow still communicate with them. Sure, that is frustrating to hear—especially for individuals who are dedicating their lives to public service., but it is a valid complaint to a certain extent.

As an administrator, I caution you to not fall victim to the, “Tree-falling-in-the-woods,” trap: the belief that you communicated your message regardless of if anybody heard it. This simply isn’t true. An administrator’s goal should be to make sure as many residents listen and understand whatever message needs to be conveyed.

The challenge is making it happen, and not simply putting out the message. If it doesn’t happen, I would suggest that both the administrator and residents share in that failure—both from a rhetorical point-of-view, and all to unfortunately, in tangible ways as well.

Author: Adam Kuczynski, MPA, is currently completing his Ph.D. in Public Administration at Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration. Adam has served in local government, and worked as a journalist and director of communications at a nonprofit. He focuses primarily on volunteerism and philanthropy, but also on transparency, administration, and law. He may be reached at [email protected].

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