3 Public Relations Lessons from Raleigh’s UDO

Posted on Posted in From the Blog, My Two Sense

Raleigh City Councilors recently held a few public hearings about the UDO, or unified development ordinance. As usual with public hearings, the majority of those who show up to speak had negative comments. If you watched the public hearings online, you might guess the entire city is against this rezoning. In reality, a few hundred people is a small slice of 400,000.

Those negative comments may have sounded angry. In fact, some residents yelled. Underneath it all, I heard fear. Confusion. Some people’s comments indicated they think this rezoning means their house will be taken away from them. Many people accused the city of being too hasty.

The UDO has been under discussion for at least five years. Obviously, there was a communication gap somewhere.

The city spent $50,000 to communicate information about the UDO to all residents, sending first a letter, then a postcard. City officials visited CACs more than once to talk about the UDO. Signs went up all over town about a citywide rezoning. But some residents claim they did not receive the mailings or see the signs. A lot of people don’t even know what a CAC is; fewer attend the meetings.

Raleigh zoning map.
Raleigh zoning map.

And thus a public relations lesson or two:

Lesson #1 – Overcommunicate your change. Some people are going to get sick of hearing your message. But some won’t see it until the seventh time you send it out. I’m not arguing for the city to send seven postcards. Or for you to do so next time you have a big announcement. But be sure your communication comes by both email and snail mail more than once.

Lesson #2 – Reframe your message. Each communication needs to have the basic info. But try presenting it in different ways. Frankly, I’m guessing most of those people received a postcard or letter (or both), but quickly dismissed them without reading or without exploring more. But why? Maybe they saw the city’s seal and figured it was just some unimportant city stuff. Maybe the language in the letter did not make sense, or did not make it clear how the change will affect homeowners.

Either way, it’s something to think about next time you’re crafting a message. Some people respond only to visual cues. In this case, I’d argue a map and a big, red arrow pointing to my house and the words, “Your house will be rezoned,” might help. On the other hand, some people just need to see the words in different ways for the message to sink in.

But while the city is receiving a lot of flak for not spreading the message far and wide, I argue that at some point, a resident has to be responsible for staying up to date on his or her own. The UDO was mentioned in news media. Residents have been invited to weigh in on rezoning during multiple public sessions. The city’s email newsletter has tons of information; you just have to sign up for it. You can call or email your city councilor, and it helps if you actually read the mail the city sends you.

Democracy only works if citizens pay attention and participate. If you don’t, you have no right to complain.

That’s not a message councilors up for election want to send. But that leads to public relations lesson #3: You can’t please everyone. At some point, you just have to give up on the segment of your audience that isn’t willing to try. It’s an old cliche, but it’s true: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

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