Essential Communication Skills for Public Leaders
Good communication skills are essential for all leaders. But for public leaders, whether they are working for governmental agencies or nonprofit organizations, the need for effective communication takes on added importance. Unlike leaders in the private sector, whose key responsibility is often to share information about profits to a highly targeted audience, public sector leaders must communicate with the public on a wide variety of topics and for many different reasons. A leader’s skill in this area can mean the difference between an effective organization and a mediocre or poor-performing one.
The public sector has many avenues of communication. An online master’s in public administration program can provide the skills and background needed to communicate effectively and prepare candidates for public leadership or other public administration career paths.
Public leaders act as liaisons between the public and policymakers. As such, they must gather information from both constituencies about concerns, needs and goals. The public leader must communicate this information to make sure policymakers understand the public’s viewpoint and vice versa. Good communication leads to effective policies where everyone’s needs are considered.
In a 2018 study, The Volcker Alliance surveyed rising public leaders to gauge their opinions on many issues, including the importance of public communication. A substantial majority of respondents rated these functions “very important:”
- Fostering a culture of responsive service to the public (81%)
- Seeking out and considering a wide range of citizen voices (70%)
- Honing your message for the public (71%)
Additionally, the survey found high support for internal policy-related communication functions. Respondents felt strongly about these items:
- Gaining buy-in from other governmental agencies or entities (71%)
- Honing your message to advise elected officials effectively (77%)
All of these duties require good communication skills. A public leader who is a talented communicator helps policy matters to proceed smoothly for all involved.
To support policy development activities, government and nonprofit leaders must engage the public and keep them well informed about what is happening in the organization. According to Monika Bogdal of the Poznan University of Economics, proper communication in this area reaps many benefits:
- Citizens who are well informed about a policy being implemented are more likely to react according to public administration expectations.
- Citizens’ opinions about policy issues are based on reliable knowledge instead of negative emotions.
- Citizens know their rights and responsibilities in the legislative process.
- Citizens understand how they can benefit from and access proposed social programs.
- An organization can avoid having a negative public attitude toward a policy turn into a crisis situation, which in turn will save time and money.
Informed citizens are clearly better partners. By fostering this relationship, good communicators both serve the public and make their own jobs easier and more effective.
Public safety is another area where leaders must exercise good communication skills. Citizens must be kept informed of issues that affect their health or wellbeing. Some issues, such as the maintenance of an area’s food or water supply, are ongoing and may not constitute an emergency. Others, such as natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or disease outbreaks, are crises that require quick, decisive, and constant communication.
This communication is twofold. First, public leaders must obtain — or clearly and effectively direct staff to obtain — information from the people immediately involved with the crisis, such as law enforcement personnel, scientists, and physicians. The leader must boil this information down to its essentials and find ways to phrase it in simple, easy-to-understand language. Then the public leader is ready to communicate with the public.
To address emergencies, spokespeople must usually take the public stage on television and other forms of media. According to the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), simply delivering facts is not enough. The way the facts are delivered makes a huge difference, and leaders must be trained to communicate for maximum effect. Some research-proven tips from the IPR include:
- Avoid the phrase “no comment” because people think it means the organization is trying to hide something.
- Present information clearly by avoiding jargon or technical terms. Lack of clarity makes people think the organization is purposefully being confusing to conceal information.
- Appear pleasant on camera by avoiding nervous habits that people interpret as deceptive. A spokesperson needs to make strong eye contact, limit stutters such as “uhms” or “uhs,” and avoid nervous gestures such as fidgeting or pacing. These and other poor communication habits reduce the impact of the message being delivered.
Without proper training and education, speakers can all too easily make these types of mistakes. By learning ahead of time how to communicate in a crisis, public leaders can ensure they are ready to act effectively when public safety issues arise.
Besides these specific areas, good communication skills help public leaders in several overarching ways. An agency that communicated information and expectations clearly, both internally and externally, runs more efficiently and gets more done. Proper communication also aids in transparency, which is an important quality for organizations that operate in the public eye.
On the flip side, poor communication can reduce efficiency, which can hamper an organization’s effectiveness. Lack of transparency can promote public suspicion and cause problems where none actually exist. By learning good communication skills and practicing them every day, public leaders can avoid these pitfalls and guide their agencies to success.