News: CJ Exclusives

Local Governments Get Schooled in How to Deliver Bad News

Webinar focuses on crafting message for tough economic times

[Editor’s note: This story was corrected after being published.]

RALEIGH — Amid growing public dissatisfaction over local government attempts to raise taxes to meet budget shortfalls, 29 local government sites attended a live webinar on May 20, 2010, to educate officials on how to talk to citizens, constituents, and the media about upcoming budget cuts or tax increases.

The webinar, “Delivering Bad News: How to Help Citizens Understand the Realities of Tough Economic Times,” sponsored by the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was facilitated by Mark Weaver, president of Communications Counsel, Inc., a national communications consultancy in Columbus, Ohio. Weaver has advised top-level elected government leaders, including President Ronald Reagan, and nonelected officials for more than two decades.

Among the topics: understanding how the public thinks; taking the community’s “pulse;” determining what bad news to share and when; using communication principles to craft the message; and ways to deliver the message.

North Carolina local government officials may well feel the need to do a better job of communicating with their constituents, given the results of a number of tax proposals over the past few years.

From Nov. 7, 2007, through May 18, 2011, 54 counties held 78 referendums seeking a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax. Only 19 were approved. Some counties have tried to win voter approval two or more times, including Columbus, Guilford, Harnett, and Orange.

Duplin, Randolph, Robeson, and Wilkes counties succeeded after multiple attempts. Tax-hike critics say the counties prevailed by scheduling special elections in the spring or summer, when turnout was likely to be low and the voters who were more motivated to pass a tax increase would show up at the polls.

Earlier this year, Cabarrus and Halifax counties passed quarter-cent sales tax hikes. Buncombe, Durham, and Orange counties each have a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.

In 2007 and 2008, 21 counties tried to pass a 0.4 percent land transfer tax. All failed. Gates and Tyrrell counties tried twice and failed.

Results released Sept. 21 from a national opinion poll by the Manhattan Institute on the economy and the budgeting process of state and local governments show that voters strongly oppose higher taxes. A majority of the 1,000 registered voters in the survey favor spending cuts to stabilize state government finances. Respondents were drawn from 10 states, including North Carolina.

Discussing some of the key findings in The Wall Street Journal, pollster Douglas Schoen reported that 48 percent of the respondents said “elected state officials made careless and self-serving decisions,” indicating voters blame politicians for “creating and exacerbating the problems.”

What was said at the webinar

In a segment on “Putting the Message Together,” Weaver stressed the importance of choosing the “best words,” saying “words matter,” and that there’s a difference between spinning a topic and framing it.

Local government officials need to get out their message to the public in advance of bad news so they can frame the message and build their case for their proposed solution to the problem, Weaver said. They also need to communicate their successes.

Weaver covered the principle of primacy, which says the first thing an unbiased observer learns is the most credible, so “when we have potentially troublesome information for the public, we must get out the information first, frame the information, and provide the proper context.”

Explaining the principle of recency, Weaver said, “the last thing officials say is what the public remembers most.” The third principle of strategic communication, Weaver explained, is that citizens reject information contrary to their beliefs, even when there’s evidence that conflicts with those beliefs. Thus, officials “must communicate with the voters’ viewpoint in mind.”

To frame a message, Weaver said officials should use action and descriptive words and maintain consistency of the message throughout all levels of the organization. As examples, Weaver said officials might describe a budget shortfall as a “gaping hole” or as “unprecedented,” then everyone agrees to use those same words.

Communications affect perception, Weaver said. Some years ago, when the son of a governor of a small state was arrested, the media used the term “governor’s mansion,” making it sound like a millionaire’s home, which wasn’t accurate. So Weaver said the staff starting using the term “governor’s residence.”

In a telephone interview, Carolina Journal asked Weaver if the webinar could be viewed as a public relations vehicle to help officials counteract public resistance to tax increases or budget cuts. “It’s incumbent on town leaders to get out good, credible information to the public and let the democratic process work,” Weaver said.

Who participated

Records provided to CJ by Thomas Thornburg, senior associate dean at the School of Government, show that Burlington, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Lenoir, and Troutman had the largest number of participants — as many as 20 — attending the Delivering the Bad News webinar.

Rebecca Rogers Carter, management services manager for Fayetteville, said her department hosted a listening station of the webinar in City Council chambers for about 20 managers and supervisors. At the time, they were reviewing a social media policy and developing platforms to communicate with the public better. Because the webinar emphasized citizen engagement and the growing use of social media, Carter said, “I saw this as an excellent opportunity for general training in applications of communications principles.”

Jondeen Terry, city clerk for the city of Burlington, told CJ that all city department heads (20 people) were told by the city manager to attend the webinar. The city budget already had been determined by the time attendees participated in the webinar, Terry said, so the purpose was to learn communication strategies as part of overall training, not to focus on how to sell the quarter-cent sales tax hike referendum on the Nov. 2, 2010, ballot. The referendum was rejected by Alamance County voters.

CJ asked Thornburg how much Weaver was compensated, and by whom, to conduct the webinar. Thornburg said the School of Government did not pay Weaver for his work, and there was no contract for a fee or for his expenses.

Asked whether he subsequently received a contract with any attendees of that webinar, Weaver said he has not performed any paid work for them. He did mention that he conducted a preconference seminar titled “Mastering the Media: How to get good news coverage even when things are going bad,” for the 2010 annual conference of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, in conjunction with the N.C. League of Municipalities.

Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.