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Communicating with your Community in the Digital Age


At the California Association of Public Information Officers (CAPIO) Annual Conference on April 9-11, 2014, public information officials and local government communicators from across the state of California came together to talk about the state of local government communications and how to better interact with the public. MindMixer Marketing Manager Michael Ashford led a session that illustrated how governments can better relate to and interact with community members. In case you missed it, this blog includes highlights from the presentation.

Thanks to the growth of the Internet in the home and the rapid expansion of mobile devices with texting and online capabilities, how we communicate is dramatically different today than even 10 years ago.

However, most government entities today are not well-equipped to communicate with a fast-moving group of people that expects fast-moving feedback.

This becomes a fundamental issue for governments that face the challenge of tapping into this evolving communication ecosystem, because traditional means of engagement no longer work.

The Knight Foundation study “Soul of the Community” stated that “attending a public meeting was more likely to reduce a person’s sense of efficacy and attachment to community than to increase it.”

Why then is most of the money spent on engagement in the U.S. still going to producing public meetings?

Matt Leighninger’s “Making Public Participation Legal” points out that our laws governing public participation pre-date the existence of the Internet and social media.

While we wait for laws to catch up with technology, Leighninger says governments and communities can begin to “reframe” their relationship with citizens.

Conversations about important community issues take place with or without government involvement. Technology provides governments the ability to not just get involved, but to lead and manage that discussion from the get-go.

Make no mistake, online engagement is how public participation is taking place and will continue to take place moving forward.

In 1962, Everett Roger detailed his Law of Diffusion of Innovations, which explains how ideas and technologies spread. After the “Innovators” and the “Early Adopters” latch onto something new, the “Early Majority” and “Late Majority” bring about the rapid adoption of an idea or technology then disperse it to the population en force.

Taking it a step further, there even comes a point where we can begin making assumptions. For instance, as you read this, I’m going to assume that you a) have a phone with text messaging capabilities, b) have a Facebook account, and c) bank online. These three technologies have been so widely adopted that I simply assume you use them all.

The same will happen — and is happening — with online engagement in communities across the U.S. and around the world. Citizens’ adoption of the technologies that make online engagement a more effective way of reaching a broader, more representative audience will ensure this reality.

Returning to perhaps the immediate pushback to online engagement — the issue of how much time it will consume — the question becomes: Relative to what?

Relative to planning, coordinating and attending a three-hour public meeting?

Relative to sending an email or answering a phone call? How about 50 emails or 50 phone calls?

Relative to compiling results of a community-wide survey to make sense of the responses?

There is a better, more effective way to ask the right questions of your community and get better answers to those questions and greater insight into who is participating, and it is through online engagement. The ability to connect with citizens both today and in the future relies on governments subscribing to this truth and becoming adopters of online engagement technology.

Post by Michael Ashford


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