Know (how to communicate with) Your Local Government

Anyone living or doing business in Austin, Texas is likely aware that we have a brand new mayor and city council. For many, that’s where their knowledge ends.

Folks might not be curious enough to ask:

  • Who are the new council members and what makes them tick?
  • What influences them and to whom do they listen?
  • How do they communicate with the public and amongst themselves?
  • What are their priorities and how do they talk about them?

In order to complete a successful effort or project in any city, you need to understand not just the players, but also the game, the play calls, the stats and the patterns. All elected officials and decision makers are champions for certain issues, but how do you make them a champion for yours?

In Austin, for example, let’s say you’re seeking approval for a new residential high-rise. We know that “affordability” has risen to the top of the council’s list of Problems to Be Solved, and that residential housing cost is a natural issue to attack. This is where the importance of language and messaging comes into play.

Simply arguing that you’re adding more supply to the high-demand housing market may not get the job done. You need to talk specifically about how your project benefits the community and helps with affordability. You’ll need to consider how it will be perceived not only by the elected officials, but also by the local media and other community leaders. Listen closely to the words decision makers are using, and then do your best to reflect that language in the messaging you use when advocating for your effort.

Know your leaders — and their influencers. In the age of information overload, elected officials must rely on multiple people and channels to help them make decisions. Are they most likely to listen to their office staff, their board and commission appointees, or the editorial page? If you watch closely, you’ll be able to discern who you need to influence in order to influence the outcome.

Meet them where they’re at. Attending a city council meeting might not be the most effective way to communicate with your elected official, but maybe they’d be happy to take your input at an in-district town hall meeting. Some decision makers might not be responsive over the phone, but maybe contacting them via social media would elicit an immediate response. Identifying the most effective channels of communication on a person-by-person basis is critical.

Analyze themes and values. Understanding the overarching themes of a body, as well as knowing what’s important to the members as individuals is key. The overall issues may stay the same from one council to the next, but their approach to solving problems, the language they use, and the values they hold may vary significantly. When accomplishing your goals, you’ll need to show that you’ve made that shift in your messaging and approach.

These days, putting your finger on the pulse of people and personalities is just as important as having a solid set of facts and figures. Your key to success may simply be to watch and learn. And then be sure to show your work.

Originally published at on July 6, 2015.