Words of Wisdom for Public Officials Trying to Connect With Citizens

For one, realize that you have the "curse of knowledge."
December 2016
Author Jonah Berger (FlickrCC/Ted Eytan)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

Many public officials feel that much of the cynicism and distrust surrounding government exists because they haven’t properly “told their story.” Yet when the occasional media report surfaces about a jurisdiction engaging marketing or public relations professionals, the tone is usually critical, as if this is something that governments should not do.

That’s odd when you consider that, more and more, public officials are being urged to see their constituents as customers. After all, what successful business does not do marketing? Certainly a case can be made that public officials should not spend public money to simply promote themselves. But devoting time and resources to communicating with constituents, understanding their needs and explaining what government is doing is vitally important. We could probably legitimize it by calling it transparency.

With those thoughts in mind, it is worth considering the ideas in Jonah Berger’s recent book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Berger is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He went to college to become an environmental engineer, but he began to wonder whether he could apply the tools of the hard sciences to complex social phenomena. Along the way, he discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. He found the ideas in Gladwell’s book powerful but mostly descriptive. He wanted to know why some ideas catch on and others do not. After more than a decade of research, he’s got some answers.

To begin with, Berger says, word of mouth -- whether face-to-face or through social media -- is 10 times as effective as advertising. Policy is complicated, so public officials need to communicate complex ideas in the language of the people they want to reach. This is made more difficult by what Berger calls “the curse of knowledge.” We know a lot about what we’re trying to communicate and we think it is clear to others when it is not. (This bit of advice really hit home. When Berger told me that, I thought of all the times back when I was a mayor that my wife would tell me after a speaking engagement that I needed to do a better job of “connecting the dots.”)

Berger has developed a set of principles of effective word-of-mouth marketing that, he says, “cause things to be talked about, shared and imitated.”  Triggers, or cues that bring a particular idea to mind, are one example. Emotional content is another, because when we care about something we share it. And there is practical value: People tend to pass along information that they think will be helpful to others.

So the first step in effective word-of-mouth marketing is to listen carefully to the customers. Understand their issues and the language they use to speak about them, then use that same language to respond. It’s good advice for public officials who want to connect with citizens in an era of cynicism and distrust.