At their bi-monthly work session in city hall last night, City Council members heard an hour-long presentation from members of Harrisburg’s communications department. Led by Director Joyce Davis, the department’s employees laid out their strategies for connecting with Harrisburg citizens in person and through social media.
I planned to miss the presentation so I could attend a meeting across town. Ironically, that event provided perfect case-study in how not to communicate with city residents.
Last Friday afternoon, city employees began announcing a “community de-briefing” to be held this Tuesday at Hamilton Health Center, following a series of tragic incidents that took place nearby. These incidents included an apparent suicide-by-cop that left Ahmed El-Mofty dead on Dec. 22, as well as a Jan. 18 raid by the U.S. Marshal Fugitive Task Force. That raid ended tragically when police fatally shot Kevin Sturgis after Sturgis opened fired on officers, killing Deputy U.S. Marshal Chris Hill.
Tuesday’s event was billed as a community gathering where residents could discuss the killings and learn about community resources to cope with trauma. The police had invited members of the Keystone Crisis Intervention Team to participate, as well.
It turns out that the crisis team members weren’t just participating in the meeting, but leading it. And the meeting wasn’t so much a “de-brief” as it was a group counseling session for the residents most closely affected by the violent events. That’s a good and admirable mission. But it came as a surprise to some of the 30 residents who attended last night. Those who weren’t Mulberry St. residents were allegedly asked to leave before the meeting began. Some left frustrated, claiming they weren’t informed of the true purpose of the event.
Looking back at messages from official city channels, one can see how those residents misunderstood the purpose of the meeting. These miscommunications ended up clouding a well-intentioned event. Here are three ways that can be avoided in the future.
Call it what it is.
I first learned about this event after a senior police official tweeted out this listing on Crimewatch, a website that police use to make public announcements:
Since I cover city government, I try to attend any meeting announced by a city agency. After I arrived at Tuesday’s event and took a seat, I was asked to leave. Facilitators from the Keystone Crisis Intervention Team informed me it was a private session for the residents of Mulberry Street. Later that evening, after other residents who were asked to leave vented their frustration on Facebook and Nextdoor, I realized I wasn’t the only person who learned this on the spot.
I doubt that any of those residents intended to invade a private event. I’m sure many (including myself) would have stayed home if they knew it was a session for just Mulberry Street residents. But if that were the case, that’s how the event should have been advertised – not as a “de-briefing” or a “meeting,” as a closed-door counseling session. Which brings me to my next point.
If the event isn’t for the whole city, don’t advertise it to the whole city.
If the intended participants were residents of two or three city blocks, knock on their doors or leave them mailbox fliers. Don’t post an event listing to surrounding neighborhoods on Nextdoor or publicize it on Crimewatch. And definitely don’t tweet out reminders like this one, which reads as an open invitation to any resident who sees it:
All of the messages from the city characterized the event as a community meeting — not a closed-door counseling session for specific residents. If the city wants praise for providing these important services to residents, officials should hold the event quietly and release details about it after the fact.
If media aren’t allowed in, communicate with them directly.
City officials publicized the community gathering on different social media platforms, but the messaging wasn’t consistent. The post on Crimewatch said nothing about media access. The press release that Davis posted on Nextdoor hinted at it, but still wasn’t explicit. It said that, “although the media may know about the gathering, they will not be permitted to participate.”
Now we know that media won’t be allowed to “participate.” But are they allowed to enter the event or observe it? For future gatherings like this one, city officials should communicate directly with their contacts at PennLive, TheBurg, WITF and local TV news stations to explain the rationale.
I think everyone commends the city’s effort to help residents cope with trauma. More residents stand to benefit from the services offered on Tuesday night, and I hope that the city continues to sponsor similar events in the future. But I also hope that the city communicates the purpose of those events clearly and to the right people. That would save officials some of the ill will expressed by excluded residents on Tuesday night.