An effective public works a communicator

Ron Hellbusch
Director of Public Works & Utilities
City of Westminster, Colorado
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has published the brochure entitled "Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies." The brochure is based on a survey of public works officials and those who employ them to determine the most important characteristics of an effective public works leader. These "Baker's Dozen" core competencies help public works professionals recognize and develop leadership talent. Included in this issue is the sixth in our series of core competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

Few management skills and organizational processes are more important than "communications." The success of virtually all that we do in public works management hinges on how well and in what manner we communicate.

The American Public Works Association leadership has periodically focused on communications due to its continual pivotal role in the public works operations. The most recent endeavor was in 1984 with the APWA Communications Task Force chaired by former APWA President Joseph F. Casazza of Boston, Massachusetts and co-chaired by former APWA President Carl D. Wills of High Point, North Carolina. The task force report "Better Communications: The Key to Public Works Progress" summed up the significance of communications by stating, "There is little doubt that intergovernmental relationships and the complex issues associated with the planning, financing, construction, maintenance, and replacement of such facilities (infrastructure) will continue to require extensive debate. Better communications is essential if the public is to be well served."

There are so many aspects to communicating, so many methods, so many objectives and so many desired results. It is generally agreed that the degree of effectiveness of our communication (be it written or verbal) is directly related to the success of our communication objectives and achieving our intended outcomes.

The conclusions of the 1984 communications study, mentioned above, identified four basic elements in any communications structure: "Source," "Message," "Channel" and "Audience"; and they are just as essential today, if not more than ever.

We will examine each of these with some new perspectives (and with some observations by one of my favorite communications gurus, baseball's legendary Yogi Berra). In his book When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It, Yogi puts some "Yogi Berra spin" on the relationship between what is said and how it is said versus what is intended and how it is received.

The "source" of communications is the individual or entity announcing the news or information. In our business the source can be an internal person ranging from the director of public works, his or her assistant, a division head, a program or project specialist and a public information officer, or even someone from outside the organization. The source also crafts the method by which information is dispensed: verbal, written or visual form, or a combination. It is critical that the source selected as the conveyor of information is well thought out.

Yogi considers the issue of source equally important when he said, "Public speaking is one of the best things I hate." Some do this task well; some of us are less effective, making it essential that the right person become the source. Yogi further clarified the importance of selecting the right source when he said, "I learned how to be a baseball player, not a speaker, so I can relate. It's not easy talking in front of strangers." Yogi is right. It is essential not only to select the right person as the source, but also prep and equip them with the right facts, verbiage and material.

The message is key. Clarity, simplicity, details, impact, benefit, reasons, and value all are integral components of a well-structured message. Many agencies combine a verbal delivery of a message with press releases, PowerPoint or other hard-copy informational material to assure the total audience understands and relates to the message. Listeners do not always retain the information they hear for any length of time, at least the in-depth information being conveyed. Printed material is extremely helpful as a reminder at a later point in time and for sharing with others who were not present when the source provided the message.

Yogi explains it this way: "Unless you're sure of where you want to go, you'll never get there." What I hear Yogi saying is that unless the message is clear, it will not be clearly understood by the listener. He had a parallel to this message that we can use to avoid any misunderstanding of our message to the people receiving it: "Like most things, baseball is a people business. You have to listen. Be flexible and personal." He followed that quote with one of his greatest, "You observe a lot by watching!" Our message must invite listening, flexibility, observation and a personal acceptance. Sometimes the understanding we are seeking is more strongly supported by visual messages as well as verbal.

The means or "channel" by which we convey our communications must be thoroughly thought out to be sure the target audience is reached. Channels can include memorandums, press releases, press conferences, focus groups, civic club presentations, one-on-one briefings, radio or television announcements, etc. It is helpful to assemble a team of well-informed staff to "brainstorm" possible questions and offer challenges that might surface from the audience when the message is channeled. That team should include one or more individuals who have a sense of what "the public perception" or reaction might be to the message.

I think Yogi might see the channel requiring alternatives. In his classic quip, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," he was wise enough to recognize that we cannot always succeed with a single channel. We sometimes need more than one means of getting our message out. Like Yogi suggests, we need a fork in our communications road.

The effectiveness of our source, message and channel will only meet our communications goal if we have the correct and impacted "audience" to hear, read and observe what we have to say. The brainstorming team suggested earlier can be equally productive in defining the target audience and developing a message that clearly meets their needs. The audience can vary significantly, but our message should always target the primary or principal individuals, groups or agencies that either need the information for their own purposes or, by knowing the information, can further assist the public works department in conveying the message on a broader basis. Some of the secondary audiences can be helpful in understanding and supporting our message to a broader public.

Yogi observed, "If people don't want to come out to the park, nobody's going to stop them." I think he is saying we have to key in on the right audience and convey the right message to keep our constituents coming out in support of our public works objectives, which may be street or storm drainage projects. Yogi added some valuable comments when he said, "The point is that you can't take anything for granted in baseball—or business. You have to do a lot of things right to keep people coming to your games. Mostly, you have to win." Yogi, in his own unique style, is saying that we have to know our audience, not assume or take them for granted, and we have to be thorough in our story and relate it in a way that assures they understand our message and that it meets their needs.

Two of Yogi Berra's most recognizable cliches of wisdom are "The future ain't what it used to be" and "It ain't over 'til it's over." If Yogi's words were slightly paraphrased, he might say communications today, and in the future, is a greater challenge for all of us in public works than it was decades ago because our audiences are more informed and more clear in their expectations of their local governments. Many audiences are politically active and have positions on issues.

I suspect Yogi might conclude his observations on communications by reminding all of us in public works that the need for well-thought-out messages, attention to detail, accuracy, and quality communication systems has no sunset. Although Yogi was unique in his choice of words and phrases, he practiced and believed in the four fundamental points co-chairs Casazza and Wills emphasized in the 1984 APWA communications study.

Another quote from Yogi in his book reads, "One of the beneficial things in baseball is its emphasis on rituals and organization. There's structure to everything." And there is a structure to good communications. That is our mission in communicating our public works story.

Ron Hellbusch can be reached at (303) 430-2400 or at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Possesses Integrity
  • Is Accountable
  • Is Decisive
  • Is Public Service Oriented
  • Empowers Others
  • Is Deliberate
  • Is a Communicator
  • Shows Respect for Others
  • Is Technically Knowledgeable
  • Manages Resources
  • Is Resilient
  • Delegates
  • Maintains Balance