Do we really want to draw attention to ourselves?

For any public works employee experienced in presenting a controversial project or fielding service-related complaints, this is the question that eventually arises when contemplating the development of a public relations program. But upon further reflection, the answer has to be “yes” because in the end, citizens are not only customers but also owners.

The budgets of public works departments account for a significant portion of tax dollars, and the services these departments deliver affect the lives of citizens on a daily basis. People deserve to know where their money goes and delivering services is easier if citizens understand the policies and priorities.

Also, when it comes to acceptance of proposed projects or services, the public is more educated today and less likely to just accept that government knows what is good for them. Successful implementation and execution requires “buy-in” from the community.

In April, PUBLIC WORKS magazine conducted an exclusive survey of its readers to find out how public works departments market themselves to their communities. The majority of survey respondents must have decided that “drawing attention” is the right thing to do because 69% indicated they are actively marketing their department to their community. And of all the cities reaching out, 63% have a public relations department to help in this effort.

For the remaining 31% of respondents that lack a marketing program, the primary reasons given for not implementing a public relations campaign are insufficient funding and personnel—not surprising when many departments barely have the resources necessary to deliver essential services. There were some communities that did not feel a need to promote their departments or had never thought about developing marketing programs. Some also felt a lack of interest and support from elected officials.

Getting the Word Out

How do public works departments get the word out? Of all respondents using printed marketing materials, 73% distributed brochures, 60% issued newsletters, 60% were featured in a newspaper story or ad, 48% developed handouts, 29% used door hangers, and 23% printed calendars. Most either developed the materials with in-house staff or their staff worked with a commercial designer or printer. The most popular methods of distribution were mailing/hand delivering to citizens and making the materials available for pickup at public locations.

The city of Indianapolis—with a population of approximately 800,000—uses a full spectrum of marketing tools and has developed a brochure to promote their public works department. “Each tool has definite benefits and is useful in different situations and circumstances,” said Margie Smith-Simmons, public information officer for the department of public works in Indianapolis. “However, the promotional brochure is definitely our best piece and provides a great overview of the essential and most requested neighborhood services.”

Indianapolis also distributes an electronic newsletter, water bill inserts promoting new initiatives and public works programs, and topic-specific brochures covering issues related to flood control, winter weather, ozone awareness, downspout disconnection, and sump pumps.

Farther south, the city of North Miami Beach, Fla., has chosen to use the mandated consumer confidence report distribution as an opportunity to reach out to citizens and provide, not only the data required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but also public works-related information. Using a calendar-based or datebook format, the city produces a high-quality publication with interesting graphics to educate the community about the water cycle, water quality and conservation, department awards, services, proposed projects, and water-related facts.