My director requested a meeting with local elected officials to brief them about a controversial project. I had no experience briefing elected officials and wanted some advice. “No fear, Google is here,” I thought. However, I only found communication tips for advocates and citizens, nothing for urban planners. Based on my experience, here’s what I learned:
- Anticipate Questions and Concerns from the Public
Local elected officials are keen on public engagement and making sure their constituents feel their best interests are heard. Anticipate questions or concerns the public may bring up to the elected official and provide a response to that question or concern. How? Use previous public meeting summaries or inquiries received from the public. Research politics in the local area from news articles or on public organizations websites.
2. Remove Jargon
Planners and engineers use a lot of jargon in their day-to-day internal communication to make processes and working together more efficient. Remove all jargon from meeting materials and practice not using it during the meeting. And spell out acronyms! Jargon confuses the elected official and your message will not be received. If a technical term must be used, communicate its definition. Ask someone outside the agency or in a separate department for a fresh set of eyes to quickly review the meeting materials to receive feedback on jargon they don’t understand. An intern helped us identify jargon she couldn’t understand and clarifying our message.
3. Call their Assistants
Assistants work with the elected official daily and knows their communication style and what they care about. This may take require to build a relationship first with the assistant, however, it doesn’t hurt picking up the phone and at least asking questions to prepare. Use the information you gathered from the first point above and check if your on the right track in anticipated questions and concerns.
4. KISS – Keep it simple, stupid
I started with a 30-slide Powerpoint presentation that went over “important” details of the project. My director challenged my team to only have a 5-slide Powerpoint. 5 slides! This was stressful, how could I put this together? I realized I had a lot of fluff in the slides and ensured I only had slides that would contribute to the objective of the meeting. For example, a Sea Level rise slide showing how our project may or may not be affected is important, but distracts from the main purpose of the meeting. Delete it!
5. Create Win-Wins
Elected officials generally want to be out in front on issues their constituents care about to show they are listening and working to solve problems. Create a win-win by giving them an active role in the project and receiving help on communicating with the public. For example, we scheduled public meetings around the officials attendance and had her speak at the beginning to get some face time with the public. He in turn, she helped us communicate to the public effectively by giving us insights on the best communication channels.