If you’re explaining, you’re losing

At the Michigan Association of Planning’s October, 2011 annual conference, Midland City Manager Jon Lynch, AICP, ICMA-CM gave a great presentation on communications. One of this blog’s regular readers was also in the audience and said to me, “Hey – you should write about this!” Good idea, Eric!

Here were two of Jon’s messages.

If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

The city lost 17 percent of its revenue overnight, after a decade-long tax appeal. Angry citizens demanded explanations for a complicated process that is hard to explain in 10 words or less, Lynch said, especially when opponents had simplified THEIR sound bite down to “You mismanaged money.”

“As municipal leaders, we WANT to explain,” Lynch said. “We strive to be open and transparent and provide information; that’s the right way to do business.  People take advantage of that. The message gets lost: ‘If you’re explaining, there’s something wrong.’”

The city turned its part of the conversation into “Tell us what you want.” They conducted a community-wide visioning process that succeeded in part, according to Lynch, because “People understand when you ask what’s important to them.”

In a world of 15-second commercials and USA Today McStories, you must be concise.

“The information is the same.  It’s how you explain it and how you deliver it,” said Lynch.

If you don’t tell your story, someone else will gladly do it for you.

A Midland child with severe allergies wanted a pet. His parents discovered that a miniature pig was the best solution, but Midland’s ordinances prohibit pigs as pets. The city wanted to accommodate them but, as in the previous example, had to go through several time-consuming municipal processes to do so. The Midland Daily News covered the story accurately; not so the blogosphere. The further away the story got from Midland the less accurate it became.

“We learned the hard way that there are thousands of opportunities for anybody with an interest in a particular subject to offer their opinions,” Lynch said.  “People opined on what was happening in our community — sometimes accurately sometimes inaccurately – and we weren’t even aware that they were talking about us.”

The city’s communications staffer spent two weeks doing almost nothing except responding to the resulting blizzard of emails.

“People didn’t understand the need for a regulatory foundation,” he said. “They weren’t interested in being informed.”

The city ultimately found a solution that would allow miniature pigs as pets. They also began more closely monitoring social media mentions, using tools like Google Analytics and SocialMention.com.


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