In July 2015, Salem City Council set a goal and assigned funding for the City to do communications research so it might update its communications strategies. Council said that the City should seek community feedback with the goal of learning how to help citizens provide more input to the city, and how the City itself might more actively share information with the community.

“We were very pleased with the amount of feedback,” says Courtney Knox Busch, Strategic Initiatives Manager for City Manager Steve Powers. “[We] incorporated it into the resulting plan, and are working it.”

In the months of October to December 2015, the City began its research. It conducted more than 60 interviews and 500 surveys, aiming to gauge perceptions of the City’s communications and engagement. Staff also investigated best practices in the communications literature and reviewed the City’s materials (print, web, and social media).

From January to March, 2016, city staff developed a strategic plan, with actions the City could take to improve communications with the community.

From July to August the city hired a Communications and Engagement Manager, and, as a whole, began incorporating current best practice into internal processes and procedures and training.

Knox Busch says the City Council’s 2015-16 (fiscal year) budget included funds for the work.  “The resulting contract with EnviroIssues was for $74,314 for the communications plan,” she says.

The contract is now complete and $66,000 was spent.

The City learned several key things. First, people in Salem use multiple tools to connect with city government. Of those taking the survey, 42.7% learned about City news from newspaper or other media; 38.2% from newsletters or Community Connections; 32.4% from word of mouth. So the City will continue to use multiple tools.

Few of those interviewed reported that they heard “too much” from the City, and people also told researchers that they could rarely connect their feedback to the City, to action the City subsequently took.

Most said they’d like to hear from the City more frequently, particularly about how their input is used in decision-making. Finally people said the City’s communications material can be inconsistent in its look and feel, and, because City of Salem uses so many communications outlets, its outreach can make it unclear to folks what’s important.

As a result of the study, the City is focused on several important areas as it moves forward. Because research found that staff assigned to communications lacked resources, time and structure, the City is working on both a social media audit and on reconfiguring administrative policies and procedures.

The study found that Salem has a multi-dimensional population, particularly Latino communities with whom communication was important. Knox Busch says the City will work on this by deepening relationships and sharing resources internally.

Since staff members who handled communication were generally found to lack resources, time and structure, the study recommended focusing on staff with expertise and a FTE (full time equivalent) Communications and Engagement Manager.

The City will also try to increase partnerships within the Salem community as a whole, with a more engaged staff deepening relationships with trusted voices such as media and community members. One important part of the communications study and effort was awareness about provide funding and staff support for neighborhood associations, so that these groups could grow in attendance and participation.