People sometimes tell me that Cranberry’s website, newsletter, and social media contents have crossed the bounds of good taste. Even when they haven’t crossed, I’m told, many of our communications seem to hover at the edge of what some consider only marginally acceptable standards of publishing, at least for a unit of government.
What, they wonder, were we thinking when we said that our Public Works Streets manager “seeks cure for crack?” Or that our County District Attorney has gone “down on the pharm?” Or when we introduced a new trash collection service saying that “Mutant Robots Make Garbage Grab!” Or our current video series featuring “The Most Interesting Man in Cranberry Township.” Are we entering a new age of sensationalism? Is nothing sacred?
Well, the truth is their critique may actually have some merit. Some of our messaging really does push the limits of convention, although not terribly hard. But it’s not an accident. Nor it is an attempt to make light of issues that truly upset or offend people. Let me explain.
Everyone you know is painfully aware that the prevalent tone of institutional communication is hollow, impersonal and cautious, or as some would say, blah, blah, blah. It shows up in news releases, in published reports, in official correspondence, and more. It results in boring headlines, followed by fluffy, self-congratulatory text, intended to create the appearance of communicating with the public. But it is often little more than a pretext for the organization to simply check off the box: “public informed.”
There are lots of reasons for that – past practices, fear of legal action, defensiveness, careerism, political caution, oversensitivity, and so on. The results are typically specimens of writing that feature a careful selection of facts, wrapped in superficial courtesies, which never really answer the most important question: So what? Instead, it leads to publications that few people bother to read and even fewer actually believe or make use of.
In Cranberry, communicating with our residents, businesses, and visitors is not simply a box we feel obliged to check off. It is something fundamental to our philosophy of government. Engaging residents in our shared civic mission and in the common culture of our community is a basic value. And communication is central to achieving that outcome. But to be effective, it needs to connect with people – to attract enough attention so that people will actually read it – and to be memorable enough that it can actually be used.
So we try to make our communications interesting, provocative, attractive, and fun to read and listen to. We use humor, word play, cultural memes and campy graphics to help achieve that. So if someone sees a headline that reads: “Drug vault overdoses, enters rehab,” we hope they feel sufficiently curious to find out more. And when we say that the design for our wastewater treatment plant upgrade involves “popping cassettes and pouring mixed liquor,” we like to think our readers would be inquisitive enough to see what’s behind that claim, which we feel is important information for our customers and residents to know.
Now I realize that it may sound, at least to some people, as though we don’t take our work as a local government seriously enough. After all, we have an important job to do. But actually, we take our work very seriously; it’s just that we don’t take ourselves as seriously as they seem to in some other units of government.
Of course we realize some people might interpret our attitude as being borderline scandalous, and perhaps they’re right. I admit that I’ve occasionally had my ear chewed off by folks who didn’t appreciate the manner in which we introduced the message. But, those same people admitted that they read the information because of our non-traditional way of presenting it. We believe our approach promotes engagement in our community and does so in a manner that is easier, faster and more entertaining than ever before. I am proud to serve a community that is so engaged, vibrant and passionate about their local government.
If you have ideas about how we can do better, I am always eager to hear from you at Jerry.Andree@Cranberrytownship.org