Fort Smith Board to hear about unified communications plan for the city

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 834 views 

A report to be presented to the Fort Smith Board of Directors will tout the benefits of a unified communications department for the city. The idea for a communications department comes from discussion following an update on the city’s comprehensive plan from the Future Fort Smith Committee in January.

“The formal creation of a Communications Department would solidify the City’s commitment to better communication with the public. The work would be able to be more comprehensive and less ad hoc. Branding and messaging would become consistent and communications more regular,” said Shari Cooper, public relations and communications manager for the city, in a proposal that will be presented at the board’s study session Tuesday (July 13).

During the January discussion, John Cooley, chair of the Future Fort Smith Committee, asked the city to increase communication to the city’s residents regarding projects and goals in the comprehensive plan as well as the progress being made.

“We all agree that the city has done a really good job of keeping the (comprehensive) plan in front of city (leaders), but we are trying to figure out what next might look like. How can we fully activate this plan,” Cooley said at the meeting.

He noted the biggest issue now with the comprehensive plan is communication.

“We’ve got to find a way to empower and inform the public so we have got to spread some good news. We have got to show progress. We’ve got to pat ourselves on the back. This is a constant sales job, not just the comprehensive plan but the things we do,” Cooley said.

According to the city’s website, “The Future Fort Smith Comprehensive Plan is a document containing goals, policies, and actions that define and support a common vision and purpose. The Plan sets a direction that will be used by the City of Fort Smith to proactively manage future change.” The plan was completed about six years ago and the committee was put into place to make sure the plan was not forgotten, Cooley said. In 2019, the committee updated the plan’s completion matrix.

At the January meeting, Cooley also asked that several other issues be addressed so the city could leverage its economic growth and attract additional investment to the community. Specifically, Cooley raised the idea of a new and improved city website; increased digital communications; more than one communication person;  tasks/expenses in other departmental budgets transferred into a central communications budget; and development of a community brand that could be used as a campaign to market Fort Smith.

In the proposal for a communications department, Cooper said “the city’s technology could be leveraged to be more cost-efficient for the city and cohesive between departments.” The department could be created through a reorganization strategy that would move three vacant positions in the utility department to the newly created department. Additionally, two new city positions would be created to complete an ideal six-member communications team.

If the department was approved with a four-member communication team, the total potential annual cost for the remaining fiscal year would cost the city an additional $53,112.72 over what it is budgeting for existing staff. The reorganization cost for a full six-member communication team for FY 2022, would be an additional $155,103.88 over what is budgeted, Cooper noted.

“Currently, the city’s communication work is decentralized. Some departments have staff who play a role in communications work — but some departments do not. Some departments have communication and marketing budgets, while other departments do not. Many departments have their own social media platforms, and other departments do not. Some departments develop their own press releases, while other departments may only do so occasionally,” Cooper wrote in the presentation.

Professional-level photography and graphics are not centralized or organized. Department webpages are maintained by each department, although the city’s IT department does provide technical assistance. A communications department would streamline all the processes.

The city’s communications work as it applies to staff who perform specific communication work consists of one position in the administration department with no dedicated budget; one position in the mayor’s office with a budget that includes marketing and advertising consultant work; three positions in the utility department that includes some marketing consultant work for things such as website and photography; one position in the city clerk’s office which includes work on the city’s public access channel; and one position in the IT department that includes work on the city’s website.

This system is not ideal for the city, Cooper said. While work may be approved by a supervisor or department head, work is often created by an individual staff member in a department without consultation with the city’s public relations and communication manager. While sometimes things are shared with that manager, it is not constant and has challenges under the current system, Cooper said.

“A decentralized approach to communications work often results in unintended consequences for the organization. Decentralized work lends itself to inconsistency between departments. Different departments possess multiple and varying perspectives, personalities, and tones in communication. Ultimately, various departmental identities and styles are created. Over time, departments can deviate from the singular voice or ‘The City’ as a brand. This results in public confusion and disengagement,” she wrote in the report.

One centralized communications department can improve the city’s quality and quantity of work.

Cooper said if the department were to be created, customer complaints, questions and issues concerning the utility department would remain something handled with personnel in that department.

“However, when I researched Fayetteville, they use the model of having it all under one umbrella. WE may get there, but if we do, it will be in baby steps,” Cooper said.

If formed, the new department would prioritize the city’s website and digital communications platform, which aligns with the Future Fort Smith Committee’s recommendations. The department also would fund and manage the creation of a community brand for Fort Smith. They would do so in partnership with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, downtown organizations, Fort Chaffee organizations; other city institutions such as the schools and hospitals, event organizers, art and culture institutions and media partners, the 188th Wing, city nonprofits and other important partners throughout the city.

“Such an effort would allow the community to ‘push one cart’ versus the alternative of ‘pushing individual carts.’ A successful effort would also engender civic pride and engagement,” Cooper said in the report.

Work toward a city branding would need to begin as soon as possible in order to incorporate into the city’s new website, the report said.

“Great things have been happening in Fort Smith so there could not be a more appropriate time to begin this process,” the report said. “Not only will a successful community brand resonate with Fort Smith citizens, but it will also resonate with the future citizens of our city. The next few years will be pivotal as we welcome families from Singapore and Europe. The timing for such an investment is key as great progress is being made in Fort Smith.”

As for a budget, the new department would need $370,001 in 2021, $613,528 in 2022 and $581,608 in 2023. Total funds budgeted for communications are: $168,092 in 2021, $266,666 for 2022 and $266,666 for 2023. That leaves $201,909 still needed for 2021, $346,863 for 2022 and $314,942 for 2023.

Financial resources to fund the program would come from additional appropriation from unobligated fund balances in the city’s operating funds per an appropriate allocation schedule, the report said.

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