Getting out accurate, timely information to the public is critical in government. If you're an elected official, a government agency director or a civil servant, you likely have encountered tax payers, voters, property owners and citizens in general who want information that affects their lives, from government policies to emergency warnings and health alerts.
Updating the public on legislation and regulations isn't just about society's need to have law-abiding citizens. Eric E. Peterson, communication and journalism professor at the University of Maine, writes in a 2008 report, "An Introduction to Communication and Public Policy," that distributing policy information to the public is essential to a democratic society. Public-policy communication engages citizens in discussions and debates about social conditions, which can pressure lawmakers to address these concerns, he adds in the report, which he wrote for the 2008 International Colloquium on Communication. Policy decisions that the public can live with occur when information is allowed to flow, wrote political scientist M. Dale Beckman back in 1975 in the article, "The Problem of Communicating Public Policy Effectively: Bill C-256 and Winnipeg Businessmen," for the "Canadian Journal of Political Science."
Safety and Security
Lawmakers try to prepare the public for, and protect it from, natural and man-made disasters. State and federal governments have emergency management operations to decide what to do when the public is threatened by safety, security and health risks. Emergency management teams coordinate plans to prepare for terrorist attacks, earthquakes, flu epidemics and other disasters. They work with and mobilize law enforcement agents, firefighters and other first responders. Public administrators must see that citizens receive the information needed to escape or take shelter from life-threatening situations. That responsibility includes keeping the public updated on government recovery efforts to reduce any fears or mistrust it might have after disasters occur.
The 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and, later, the distribution of deadly anthrax through the mail, prompted health officials to make the release of accurate, timely information part of public health policy. The outcome was a science-based study called public health communication. Jay M. Bernhardt, a University of Florida professor, describes public health communication as a strategy for evaluating and distributing truthful, relevant and understandable health information to the public. In an article in the December 2004 issue of "The American Journal of Public Health," titled, "Communication at the Core of Effective Public Health," he writes that when public health communication programs are well planned and executed, they help change people's attitudes and behaviors for a more healthful society. Reports on the health risks of smoking and obesity, and the public's overwhelming acceptance of smoke-cessation and weight-loss programs are examples of effective public health communication. Another example is the reporting and tracking of flu epidemics by state and federal governments, and the precautions the public has been taking as a result.
Government officials look to newspapers, TV, radio and the Internet to help keep people informed about public issues. Government agencies often have spokespeople who might go before the media to explain a major policy change or how an agency is handling a natural disaster. Spokespeople are specially trained to respond to media questions, which, if mishandled, could be damaging to their agencies. They often design crisis-communication plans that prepare agencies for public addresses following a critical event, such as an accident-related fatality or a toxic-substance spill. Communication professionals help government agencies avoid dispensing information that could mislead or otherwise harm the public.
- Proceedings of the 2008 International Colloquium on Communication: An Introduction to Communication and Public Policy
- Canadian Journal of Political Science: The Problem of Communicating Public Policy Effectively: Bill C-256 and Winnipeg Businessmen
- Emergency Management: A Challenge for Public Administration
- American Journal of Public Health: Communication at the Core of Effective Public Health
Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.