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Can we be creative and government at the same time? Absolutely.
By Belinda Willis
Director Communications & Marketing - City of Mansfield, TX
As communications and marketing professionals, we focus not only on the content of the message but how it's delivered.
Many of us came from the journalism and public relations worlds. There we looked for creative ways to deliver our message. In our previous lives, creativity is king. It was what drew our readers, viewers and customers into our realm before we bombarded them with the details.
In government, not so much; creativity that is. At least that's what they would have us believe.
I made the transition from journalism to government (with a brief stopover in public relations) 18 years ago. I spent many years covering city government and economic development. But I was also a features editor. There we were free to let our creativity rule – from story ideas to page layout and design. In features it wasn't just the message but the delivery that was important.
As a reporter I worked with some of the best PIOs in government, and I was intrigued by the thought of government communications after seeing their work. So I came into my government communications job with the idea of blending the two sides of my journalism career – news and features. Because I was starting a department from scratch, I envisioned building a communications and marketing plan that matched my philosophy on creativity: not all government news has to be boring.
Nothing like having your dreams shattered before you barely had time to decorate your office. OK, it wasn't that traumatic. But it was disheartening to see colleagues be so uncomfortable, and sometimes fearful, of presenting information to our residents in anything other than the black and white, monotone voice of a stale news release. It took two years after the debut of our resident newsletter to get approval to use four-color printing. Sometimes my ideas for feature stories were deemed too unconventional for city government, and that was hard to hear. As a growing city, there were so many stories to tell. Being a storyteller at heart, it was maddening to have to rein back my first instincts.
In defense of those non-creative government types, I understand their reluctance to embrace creativity when it comes to communications. They saw the relationship between city hall and their constituents as too precarious for anything "outrageous." They feared offending residents by taking what might be considered a less than serious approach to communicating the work of running and building a city. For them, the most creativity they saw in their organization was from the library and parks and recreation. They weren't used to seeing that concept applied to other departments and services. Producing a parody calendar for your water quality report? Shocking! A video where your police officers danced down the hallways of the public safety building? Never.
But as you can see by the real examples provided, things have changed since I first stepped into City Hall. Thank goodness. As more and more cities and counties hired communications and marketing professionals, being around like-minded colleagues helped us push the envelope. Encouraged by each other, and often the positive response we found at conferences and award competitions, we crossed the digital divide and took our ideas to social media, non-PEG channel video production and virtual city hall websites. We have the tools and the stages to let our creativity fly.
And I think our audiences are better for it. We've used these great ideas to put a human face on government, generating positive experiences through engaging our audiences. We've also learned when to be creative, and when to be government, discerning the best time, place and circumstances to take a less-traditional approach. Many of our cities and counties are facing difficult issues, and we as communicators have a responsibility to not take a cavalier attitude toward informing our residents about these issues. Our residents depend on us to understand the difference. And if we've done our job right, they trust us.
And here's where I take a page from the book of my colleague and neighbor to the east, Amy Sprinkles, communications director with the City of Grand Prairie, Texas. She always said that it was her goal, as directed by her city manager, to create raving fans for her city. When you have raving fans that trust what you do and how you do it, it makes it much easier to be government, creative or not.