In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Chris Keefer, Finance/HR Director, Town of Blythewood, SC, writes about her second career. Read more from Chris in Classes are Coming: My Mid-Life MPA.
Four years ago, after 30-plus years as a writer/editor and communications professional, I changed careers to become a public administrator. The slow recovery from recession, turning 50, and the need to do something meaningful with my career were big factors in that decision. That’s not to say that I’ve donated my Chicago Manual of Style and AP Style Guide to the local library’s used book sale; I’ve moved them off my home office desk and back into the family bookcase. But like I so often do with long-trusted friends, I still seek their guidance when needed!
Actually, in my new career in local government, I use my writing, editing, and communication skills quite often. My journalism experience in writing tight lead paragraphs makes it easy to write concise social media posts with the essential who, what, why, when, where, and how details. The HTML and web design classes I took years ago helped me develop an RFP, negotiate a contract, and work with a web development vendor to launch our town’s newly designed website. And because editors wield red pens (and we are not afraid to use them!), I’ve bloodied many drafts of minutes, reports, and plan documents I’ve been asked to proofread (including my own).
I’ve written more news releases than I care to admit, but all that practice helps me to craft messages to particular audiences and provide important information. Our town is too small to justify having a public information officer or grant writer on staff, so it’s up to the in-house former writer/editor to step up to the plate. For example, in an effort to control the rate of residential development in our growing town, our town council and planning commission decided to down-zone about 30 parcels of largely undeveloped residential land. As the required public hearing signs were being posted at each of these parcels, I was drafting a news release for our website and local media, explaining the zoning changes and what they were intended to accomplish. That helped build public support for the changes and helped allay property owners’ concerns.
As a former newspaper writer/editor who has covered plenty of municipal meetings and taken plenty of “grip and grin” photos, I can pretty well guess which agenda items will get the most mention in our two weekly town newspapers (though sometimes in comparing their reports, it’s hard to tell that they each covered the same meeting) and what questions the reporters will be asking after the public meetings. On a few occasions, I’ve pointed out a hot agenda topic to our town administrator and/or mayor so they are prepared to respond to media inquiries or pause the meeting to allow for photo opportunities.
Finally, the writing process I’ve employed in my previous career continues to serve me well in public administration. I usually start by analyzing the audience, determining how best to reach them, and developing key messages in the form of bullet points. Depending on the communication’s purpose—to inform, educate, persuade, or entertain (really!)—I then do some fact-finding to add some meat (data, official comments, and the like) to the bullet points to shape the message. For instance, in proposing a new staff position, my business case to our town administrator and mayor included a functional job analysis, a salary range, draft job description, and job posting. As a result, my proposal won the approvals and budget to do so.
Career counselors tell us that we all have knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience that are transferrable across industry boundaries. Communication, research, critical thinking, and media relations skills are among those in my writer/editor tool kit that I continually rely upon in plying my new local government trade. (The PIOs and grant writers out there could probably say the same.)
So when you hear the rally cry for greater citizen engagement, more government transparency, and building more public-private partnerships, remember how good communication contributes to effective public administration. If you have those skills, you’re truly an asset to your organization and its stakeholders.