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Short, Sweet, Simple: Tips For Effective Government Communications

When it comes to communicating vital information to residents, a “clarity before clever” strategy works best, one expert says.

When governments use an authoritative tone and present information in a formal manner—as opposed to incorporating colorful graphics or casual language—residents are more likely to do what officials ask of them, a January study found. 

That shows that  government agencies should choose their words and aesthetics carefully when presenting critical information to residents, experts say, because communications styles can significantly affect officials’ images and influence policy outcomes, said study author Elizabeth Linos, an associate professor for public policy and management at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. 

“Oftentimes the government is sending … written communication to low-income households to encourage them to apply for benefits or to help them apply for benefits. Whether or not residents respond to that communication is going to affect who gets public funds,” Linos said.

Residents take their own security, finances and public benefits very seriously, said Angy Peterson, VP of Granicus Experience Group, a digital engagement software provider. In return, residents have a level of expectation from government to match that seriousness. 

The Medicaid redetermination process, for example, will soon leave many individuals without much needed coverage, Peterson said. “If you were someone who was making life work through the benefits available from Medicaid … you need to have trust in the communications you’re getting from the government … is actually going to help you.” 

Information that is explained clearly and directly and facilitates readability helps ensure residents’ willingness to follow directions from government communications, she said. 

Peterson advised agencies to keep messages short and to the point. Breaking up large blocks of text and including bullet points and bold headlines where possible can improve readers’ comprehension, which can in turn drive residents to perform a requested action, such as receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Agencies may see improved resident response when communications are addressed to specific individuals instead of using generic introductions such as “Dear Resident,” she added. A message that acknowledges a person’s identity, such as a letter addressed to a mother who may be eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program, “adds an air of credibility,” Peterson said. 

The language in agency communications can also sway how residents perceive their government’s credibility, Linos said. For instance, a 2020 study found that the use of informal language, such as puns, in officials’ social media posts could make candidates seem less trustworthy and thus lose them constituent support.

While agencies and officials may want to seem approachable to residents, government runs the risk of not being taken seriously by being too casual.  “If we have communication that increases or decreases voter registration, that affects electoral outcomes,” Linos said. 

“Clarity … should always be the top goal: Clarity over clever, so that the end user really knows what the information is [and] how it applies to them,” Peterson said.