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4 Communication Skills Required for Public Leaders

Today’s public leaders require communication skills promote citizen engagement and align organizations with the larger public needs. Unfortunately, the ways in which leaders communicate have changed drastically in recent decades with the advent of social media, the call for greater transparency, and the need for immediate access to information. Therefore, public leaders need to develop and hone the following skills in order to stay on top of these demands:

  • Communication planning
  • Media relations
  • Social media and digital communications
  • Emergency communications planning

Communication is essential to nearly everything your municipality or nonprofit organization undertakes. However, knowing how to develop a communication plan is a skill that is often overlooked. Communication plans are necessary for public organizations to effectively convey their goals and aspirations.  For example, the City of Ashland, Oregon has a plan that outlines overarching principles and specific details how city agencies and departments will engage with the public. The plan also describes when traditional and new media will be used to reach target audiences. From setting goals and identifying key audiences and messages, to selecting tactics and establishing timelines and budgets, communication planning is critical.

In addition to a communications plan, the news media can be a valuable conduit of important information to your key audiences. But working with the media can be challenging, as any public leader knows. Learning strategies for promoting ‘good’ news and dealing with ‘bad’ news and knowing when to using social media vs. traditional media are a learned art. As noted by David Grinberg (2014), a Federal Social Media Advisor, public officials must not only understand the value of traditional media but also learn how to “befriend the beast” of social media. He also notes that in this new age of media relations, we must move past the “us versus them” mentality with the media and instead, leave the trenches and meet journalists one-on-one and face-to-face.

But the reality is — and will be for some time — that digital communications is the way we most frequently share and consume information. Today, public leaders need to be savvy in using social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat as well as know how to create engaging content.  However, determining which platform is best for your organizations to meet your communications needs is sometimes difficult.  The rewards of social media are many as it is an affordable and quick way to engage with the public, however, with these rewards come some pitfalls. Those managing social communications must also know how to effectively deal with social trolls and other pests that may attempt to hinder your communication efforts.

Perhaps the most critical of skills, that requires proficiency in the first three, is emergency communication planning. With natural disasters, industrial accidents, intentional/man- made events, and public health events, getting key messages and critical information out before, during, and after an emergency presents many challenges. To be prepared for such challenges, public organizations need to prepare an Emergency Communications Plan (ECM) that describes how the organization will respond to an incident and how information is shared with constituents. The City of Pleasantville, NJ has such a plan and it describes the types of emergency situations, responsibilities, and enforcement of communication procedures. Sound ECMs, like Pleasantville’s, are intertwined with emergency procedures and the main communications plan.

Learning these skills are not difficult, but takes time and much practice. At CELG we offer a Strategic Communications Certificate Series where public leaders can develop and enhance critical communication skills. By learning from subject matter experts and peers in the community, participants gain valuable insight from best practices in public management. Join us in an upcoming program!

Grinberg, D. (2014, June 23). “3 Rules for Mastering Media Relations — And Why It Still Matters (Part I).” GovLoop. Retrieved from https://www.govloop.com/