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.
Leadership in urban planning is critical to developing livable, equitable, and vibrant places for people, yet it’s overlooked in its significance. One of the misconceptions is that leadership is thought to be positions in power such as directors, city officials, and board members. Yes, these positions have the authority to make decisions on whether housing is built, new transit line is funded, or where to prioritize resources, but I argue urban planners also make powerful decisions. They decide on which stakeholders they interact with, how they communicate with these positions of power, and how they set their own priorities.
One of my greatest achievements of a entry-level planner was knowing I didn’t have to be in a management position to be a leader. I had as much, or even more, influence on the organizational culture, how decisions were made, and planning sustainable projects. Luckily my current boss saw this in me and promoted me to a senior planner.
So far, I have found several studies about leadership in planning that describe Place Leadership and Place-based leadership. These definitions still seem to be focused on positions of power. A more comprehensive approach is to instill leadership in our urban planners by providing research on skills, behaviors, and habits of great leaders. This is what I intend to do with this website. Make the connection of why leadership creates great cities, and how urban planners can integrate leadership skills, behaviors, thinking, and habits into their daily lives.
For any suggestions, examples, or needs that will help urban planners become leaders please comment below!
There are various ways to influence your industry and professionally develop your skills, and sometimes it takes working for free. Volunteering provides planning professionals great opportunities to shape the industry and grow themselves.
There are an array of organizations that have plenty of opportunities for professionals to help. To name a few, Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), SPUR (in the Bay Area), American Planning Association (APA), and Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP). These organizations shape how cities and communities are planned and built. They send letters to government officials, develop guidance for professionals, set up workshops, create conferences, have community boards, and puts out news. You can help these organizations do this and help shape their message and meet colleagues and create partnerships. For example, I am researching and documenting mobility hubs role in enhancing sustainability and livability in communities for ITE. I work with top professionals in the transportation industry around the world helping me gain diverse perspectives of my profession and enhance my writing skills.
There is also intrinsic value of volunteering. Volunteering has shown to bring happiness to people’s lives by doing good for the community (that can be a local community, ITE community, or the world). People also feel more socially connected, warding off loneliness and depression. Several studies by United Health Group found that when people volunteer, they feel mentally and physically healthier.
Volunteering for young professionals entering the workforce shows prospective employers they can bring tremendous value to the organization. As a hiring manager, when I see young planners with little to no experience, but with a lot of activities involved in the industry, I know this person is serious about learning and growing and I want to hire them.
So how can you get involved in volunteering activities? Here are some strategies: Continue reading “Shape your industry, grow yourself”