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Keeping Municipal Residents Informed: Confronting Controversial Topics in government communication

In today’s political climate, arguments seem to break out all over social media and in public forums with little or no provocation. Between the pandemic, election, and seriously divided political viewpoints, it is important for municipal governments to recognize that these hot button issues should be addressed appropriately by engaging their audience and responding with unbiased and reliably sourced facts. 

Controversial topics can get very heated with audiences whether online or in person. In their book Dealing with an Angry Public,  Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field note that people can get emotional or angry in three situations: 

1. When people have been hurt 

2. When people feel threatened by risks not of their making 

3. When people believe their fundamental beliefs are being challenged 

It is important to note that people who do not feel heard are likely to speak the loudest and some individuals will use a more direct or emotional style of expression than others. There are several ways of dealing with an angry public when it comes to controversial topics. Susskind and Field advocate for what they call the “mutual gains” approach, which involves adhering to six key principles:

  1. Acknowledge the concerns of the other side; or in other words, be unbiased in your decision making
  2. Encourage joint fact-finding
  3. Offer contingent commitments to minimize potential impacts; promise to compensate knowable but unintended impacts
  4. Accept responsibility, admit mistakes, and share power
  5. Act in a trustworthy fashion at all times
  6. Focus on building long-term relationships

By following these six key principles, you can help diffuse any rising anger over difficult topics or situations. 

Another way to diffuse difficult conversations is to engage your audience. An engaged audience is a happy audience. Social media, for example, presents  an opportunity to be more transparent. When you open yourself up, the public will generally trust you more. As suggested by HootSuite, this helps humanize the government, as too often people forget that there are actual people behind government offices (Tran, T., & Bar-Tur, Y. 2020). mentions that, even with all its nuances and intricacies, social media fundamentally facilitates government transparency (Hsiung, C. 2020). 

Trust is essential when dealing with difficult topics. Without trust in the government, efforts at transparency will fail. An article shared by The Institute for Local Government explores some of Susskind’s and Field’s recommendations. They recommend a strategy that focuses on building and maintaining a long-term relationship of trust between your agency and the community it serves. This involves, among other things, being willing to share information, listen to people’s concerns, and learn what steps should be taken to address those concerns. When sharing information, governments must share the good, the bad, and the ugly. When listening to concerns, it is important to demonstrate that the agency and its leaders care about residents and are willing to explore solutions to potential problems. Leaders should ask themselves, other leaders, and concerned residents what steps might minimize the impacts that are of concern.  

A government’s job is to respond to residents’ concerns. With this comes decision making. According to the Institute of Local Government, this involves ensuring that the decision making process is fair and that all points of view are treated with respect. Another responsibility is ensuring that decision makers have trustworthy and reliably sourced information about the impacts (both positive and negative) the decision will have. Leaders themselves must also be trustworthy, which not only means telling the truth, but acknowledging mistakes and being guided by what serves the community’s interests rather than leaders’ personal or political interests. 

The public is looking to the government not just for direction but to set the tone for how to cope with societal changes. As HootSuite mentions, it is especially important for the public sector to get the message out in a clear, calm, professional manner. This means no overuse of exclamation points or tweets in all-caps. Put officials who can convey important messages in a controlled and reassuring manner at the front and center of communications. In addition, if you see that a significant number of people are falling for or spreading falsehoods, use official platforms to set the record straight right away. 

In general, addressing difficult topics is the most important and the most difficult part of government communications. Avoidance will only perpetuate the problem and could lead to resident speculation and conjecture. When governments leave holes in communication, residents will often fill in the gaps with whatever they think might be happening. Public servants who communicate transparent, objective, reliably sourced, and timely information to constituents build trust and build more peaceful and pleasant communities. 

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