Should the communications department remain in the shadows?

Home Forums Citizen Engagement & Customer Service Should the communications department remain in the shadows?

This topic contains 12 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Daniel Bevarly 8 years, 8 months ago.

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  • #167749

    Deb Dyar


    My name is Deb Dyar and I am the Public Relations Officer with the City of Ankeny in Iowa. At a department staff meeting this morning we were discussing the relatively invisible role of the work the public relations department does on behalf of the city and whether that invisibility was detrimental to continued support for the department.

    Currently, the City of Ankeny has a one voice communication policy centralized within the public relations department. The department is responsible for brand management, and strategic communications on behalf of the city including: press and media relations, public information, marketing, advertising and all digital services, including the City website and social media spaces.

    All production materials are developed and designed in-house. For example, if we produce a marketing piece for economic development or program guide for parks and recreation, there is no acknowledgement that the design, layout and production was done by the City’s public relations department.

    We are considering a more visible presence and adopting a new strategy that includes a “designed by” or “created by” statement to the work we produce. Has anyone in a similar position done this? Can you give examples of how your statement reads? Did you encounter any negativity from other city departments? Are there potential pitfalls to adopting this strategy?

    Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

    Deb Dyar
    Public Relations Officer
    City of Ankeny

  • #167773

    Daniel Bevarly

    As a former communications director for a municipal government, I believe I may have some experience to contribute to your questions?

    You ask a variety of questions related to processes and policy. First, I never subscribed to the communications department officially as a “public relations” department. While this is indeed an accurate description of your work, it implies private sector “PR” which implies, spinning, word-smithing, manipulation (especially in your media relations work). “Public Communications Office”, “Public Information Office” Communications Department, etc., while maybe not as dynamic sounding as PR, still accurately describe your role.
    Second, your department is a “support agency.” You exist to sup

    port the work of the other executive branch offices and perhaps the office of the chief executive herself. Do you produce proprietary materials exclusively for the services your department provides? I am guessing that you do not. However, you do produce these pieces showcasing other agencies. While it may feel like your department exists in the shadows, as you state, fact is, as a support agency that is where you should exist. Think about it, if all support functions in an administration strived for public recognition work, it’d be pretty chaotic. Example: “This appointment brought to you by the mayor’s or city manager’s scheduler’; “Your garbage pickup enabled by the public works garage and gas pumps”; “The mayor’s budget address was first drafted by the finance department staff”, etc. You get the picture.

    The outlets for recognition for your work should be among your external peer groups such as your local, and state PRSA IABC, or NAGC, NLC, USCM, ICMA and others for web and print work. Positive recognition from the agencies in which you do business with should be constant if you are doing your job to keep them looking good.

    Perhaps discussing such feedback with internal department heads who utilize your services should be part of your department director’s tasks. I agree, it’s tough to produce excellent brochures, campaigns, speeches, and web sites and have the internal customers in which they were designed recognized as proprietors for those materials, but that’s what good support work is about; especially in the public sector.

    One idea is to refocus your internal efforts as an “internal PR” shop for the other agencies. Hopefully, you track your services and hours and who you are providing services to, how many, cost to produce materials, and have a list of products and services you can provide to an agency along with the “costs” to produce them. That will make your internal clients more aware and respectful of the value you provide them as a support agency. Hope this adds some insight to your dilemma.

  • #167771

    Deb Dyar

    Thank you for your insights Daniel. As the public relations officer/director, I pressed hard when the department was formalized about five years ago to have it designated as the communications office. Unfortunately, my ability to influence that decision was limited and the name remains. With that said, at least in Iowa, public relations and communications are used almost synonymously and fortunately for us do not evoke the negative connotation associated with private PR firms.

    The public relations department does serve as a support department and has been very comfortable working behind the scenes to help others within the organization be successful. Unfortunately, with the fiscal challenges facing local, state and national governments and a vigorous and ongoing public discussion on the role of government, the work we do is so invisible to key decision-makers, it becomes an easy target for budget cuts. This would have an organization-wide impact on the departments we support and place an additional burden on each of them.

    It’s not the public recognition that is important; it’s how to help elected officials faced with a public demand for fiscal austerity to recognize and place value on the work we do.

    I doubt this issue is unique to our community and look forward to other fellow govt communicators weighing in and sharing their insights.

    Thanks again Daniel.

  • #167769

    Daniel Bevarly

    Deb – I overlooked that crucial challenge –self preservation. Indeed your department should be lobbying hard directly and indirectly among the elected officials who mush appreciate your work and the agency directors who should be advocates for your department based on your service to them and their agencies.

  • #167767

    Steve Ressler

    Interesting – I haven’t seen that move specifically.

    But I do think promoting your great work is important. I’ve seen some divisions put a special symbol (like a logo or intel inside type mark).

    I’ve seen others work on a clear regular update of successes – like a 1 page monthly win sheet with quotes from people on why your design rocks or stats on how successful

    Also if you can focus on how design can measurably improve impact that’d be awesome. So like some parks & rec event that is not promoted well, now you take a hold of it and promote it and can say we went from 20 to 50 people cause of the shop, 5 to 20 questions at the meeting, and 1 person said “I’ve never been to a meeting but thanks to the promotion I came and happy to be engaged w/ the community”

  • #167765

    Deb Dyar

    Thanks GovLoop! These are great suggestions. Has anyone done this? Did you encounter any negativity from other city departments? Are there potential pitfalls to adopting one of all of these strategies?

  • #167763

    David B. Grinberg

    Hey Deb. First, congrats on breaking into the Top 10 with your post!

    While I work for the Feds, as you know, I nonetheless would offer the following generic two-pronged strategy regarding your situation, which buttresses what Steve and Daniel have advised:

    1) First, let the high-quality of your office’s work speak for itself. You don’t need to stand on a soapbox and have your office’s name attached to everything produced. In fact, that may appear to some as self-serving, especially from an office which is a service provider. Additionally, that may entice unwarranted criticism from all the bureaucratic nit-pickers out there who may think you should have done it differently, or better, or their way. Thus just keep producing high-quality products and providing excellent customer service to the other agencies/officials with whom you work. Having other agencies/offices/officials you serve think well of your shop and the services you provide is much more important than self-promotion — in my opinion and experience. Rather than self-promotion, work to ensure greater visibility through those you serve having a highly favorable impression and positive view of your office. Your customers are your greatest assets and can, hopefully, make the case for you (if needed) — which leads to Prong 2:

    2) Second, if and when necessary, diplomatically lobby internally for more resources, or at least to avoid any staffing or funding cuts. Internally document your offices accomplishments. Consider issuing an internal monthly or weekly accomplishments report to the powers-that-be who ultimately hold the fate of your staffing and funding in their hands (mayor, city administrator, executive officials, etc.). Then, if you still face internal resource challenges, resort back to Prong 1 and cash in your chips — ask those office heads for whom you provided exemplary service to make the case on your behalf and sing your praises to the city leadership officials. Think of these folks as references to call upon when needed, much like job references in the interview/application process.

    I believe this approach is much more effective, and leaves the perception of NOT being self-serving — which can hurt you and your shop via peer influence. You want to be perceived as a critically important team player that always comes through when needed, especially in emergency/crisis situations.

    Remember, the other offices/agencies consider your shop to be a service provider, not necessarily an equal partner in terms of status — whether justified or not. Try to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their point of view, as well as your own. The time to showcase your talents and skills externally is through your role of city spokesperson to the media and public. That’s when you can really shine because your personal good name and reputation is on the line to make the city look good. Lastly, forge close ties to external stakeholders who will go to bat for your office if and when needed — similar to the internal offices your serve.

    I hope this helps. Good luck with everything, Deb!

  • #167761

    Deb Dyar

    David, this is incredibly helpful as well as actionable. Refocusing this issue on the work communicators do is what really matters. I am confident we will have internal champions and external stakeholders willing to stand up and support our work publicly. What others say about us will carry more weight with decision makers and citizens than anything we could say or do. Thanks again. PS… What a great forum to test ideas and share strategies. Thank you GovLoop!

  • #167759

    Edward J. McDonough


    I certainly second the notion of changing the name of your shop to Public Information Office. Perhaps more important, the greatest value you can bring to the table is the ability to coordinate public safety messaging during an emergency (tornadoes, mass casualty incidents, chemical spills, etc.). Make sure you and your team (including PIOs for police, fire, etc.) are trained in RISK and CRISIS communications (much different from day-to-day PR work) and how to form and work in a Joint Information Center environment. FEMA offers excellent training through most state emergency management offices and at their training facility in Maryland (essentially free for the jurisdiction sending the employees). Your value will be greatest during the times the community needs your messages the most. If you want more information, feel free to contact me at [email protected]. Best of luck.

  • #167757

    Deb Dyar


    Thank you. You bring up perhaps one of the most important responsibilities of the communication/PR or PI office and that is the ability to coordinate messaging during an emergency. Fortunately, we began training on the National Incident Management System (NIMS) several years ago that continues today with refresher courses, tabletop and incident command exercises. Great contribution to this discussion! Thanks again Edward.

  • #167755

    Jo Youngblood

    Find a way to remind them how much they like you a month before budget planning. I worked in a department where we did some of our biggest training pushes a month before the annual budget planning and it reminded folks about what all we do.

  • #167753

    Deb Dyar


    Thanks for your comment. Perhaps the department annual report is released right before budget planning? Great idea! Thanks again.

  • #167751

    Jo Youngblood

    Absolutely! Especially if it’s accompanied with a presentation with pretty visuals and percentages. Sounds like a perfect reason to remind them of how much they should (and do) like you.

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