INDIANANPOLIS, IND.—In many situations, having an elected official as an ally can make the difference in enacting or halting a change that is important for a municipal utility. Building and maintaining these relationships can mean a very involved communications strategy, speakers said in a session on “Communicating with Elected Officials” at APPA’s Customer Connections Conference Oct. 23 in Indianapolis, Ind.
“You need to both follow some important rules and think outside the box,” said Carolyn Justice-Hinson, communications and community relations manager for Fayetteville Public Works Commission in North Carolina.
The strategy in Fayetteville involves regular interaction between the city, state and county elected officials and the utility board and staff.
“This strategy of keeping the elected officials informed and educated begins with an orientation we hold for any newly elected City Council members,” she said. “These are informal, two- to three-hour sessions in which the elected official meets with a couple of utility board members and the staff to get an overview of the utility, get a chance to ask questions, and tour the plants.”
Fayetteville also holds annual meetings with local state representatives where the utility board and the staff have an opportunity to explain their positions on potential legislation. That paid off when state legislators later called on the Fayetteville general manager to travel to the state capital to explain an issue to them, recognizing him as a real issue expert rather than a special interest advocate, Justice-Hinson said.
The Fayetteville strategy also involves making appearances at events held by elected officials and feeding information to them to blast out on their own social media accounts.
“Find the opportunities to interact with them and you’ll start to get the support you are looking for,” she said.
The interaction itself needs to be tailored to the type of relationship you need to have with the elected official, said Joe Gehrdes, government relations manager for Huntsville Utilities in Alabama.
Gehrdes said there are some golden rules in communicating with elected officials: be the face of the industry by being in contact regularly, be the issue expert they turn to by being a resource when they need it, tell your story before your opponents tell it for you, stay in front of an issue rather than being reactive, admit when you don’t know an answer, never get emotional, and be social and utilize small talk to build the relationship.
“Always know the rules, always play by the rules, and always be above-board,” he said.