ON THE AGENDA | JULY 19TH, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi

Communicating About Participation

Participation leaders should communicate through the media about participation opportunities, experiences and impacts. Here's how.

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 5

Participation leaders should consider ways to communicate through the media about participation opportunities, experiences and impacts.

While the media landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade, some basic communication skills are useful whether one is working with traditional media organizations, such as newspapers and television and radio stations, or new media organizations, including hyperlocal and purely online outlets.

These skills include: clear messaging, creating a media plan, feeding the discussion about participation and reporting on results. Below we offer suggestions, many of which are adapted from the Institute for Local Government, for each of these skills.

Clear Messaging about Participation

Since media messages are mainly one-way forms of communication, there are fewer opportunities for questions and answers. Therefore, the message about the participation opportunity has to be simple and clear. It should answer the following questions:

  • What is at stake and why should citizens care?
  • What are the participation goals?
  • What will happen if people choose to participate?

Creating a Media Plan

The most fundamental step in creating a media plan is to identify a list of media, including key reporters, bloggers and online journalists who reach the audiences that you consider a priority. Research these reporters, bloggers and journalists to understand what they write about and the sorts of stories they'd be interested in. Build relationships with key reporters and outlets – email reporters with substantive thoughts on a story, engage them on social media or invite them for coffee, for example.

Participation leaders should then develop key story themes and think about the best vehicles and messengers for telling those stories; use online tools like Storify to collect and display social media messages and other information; and create an online calendar so that people can track progress and important dates.

Feeding the Discussion about Participation

Participation opportunities can be improved when more people – including the participants themselves – provide constructive criticism and contribute their own time and energy to making these projects and opportunities better. An important communication goal is to feed this conversation by providing information and responding to suggestions. Specifically, participation leaders can:

  • Offer multiple opportunities, including surveys and online forums, for citizens to report on the strengths and weaknesses of participation opportunities.
  • Respond to suggestions and report back as quickly as possible.
  • Share findings and lessons learned from debriefing and performance assessments.
  • Follow up on commitments made by participants and other partners.
  • Create an online network for information sharing.
  • Recognize and thank people for their efforts to improve participation.

Reporting on Results

At the conclusion of a participation activity, as well as at important junctures during a process, participation leaders should report on what is being accomplished. Some of this information might focus on the structure or process itself, and some might focus on how participation is influencing public decisions or producing other kinds of public action. We will discuss evaluation later in this blog series. For now it suffices to say that in reporting on results, participation leaders can:

  • Gather qualitative data through surveys, interviews, focus groups or informal channels.
  • Use quantitative measures to assess the participation effort, including number and demographics of participants, website page views and social media metrics.
  • Use interviews with decision makers to describe how participation is affecting policy making.
  • Tell the stories of people who are taking action in various ways as a result of their participation.

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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