Just Say It: The Art of Delivering Tough Messages in Public Affairs

By: Geoff Redick, Public Affairs Manager

Geoff Redick Headshot




I’ve been in more than a few meetings with public affairs clients who have come to Baker Public Relations for help translating a tough message to the public. It might be a bond vote where the taxpayer must approve paying for the interest; a budgeted tax increase the client needs support for; or even in one recent case, a tax increase that the public doesn’t get to vote on at all!

Public affairs is not all tax increases, all the time – but you get my point. Tough messages are tough to deliver. Discussions with clients in these situations often lead to questions like, “what should we say? Should we say this? Should we not say that part?”

My position in those meetings is almost always the same: just say it!

Let’s imagine a hypothetical project or proposal which comes with three clear benefits: consolidation of resources (read: cost savings), increased local investment, and preparing for future community growth. Let’s imagine your one main drawback is an increase in the property tax rate – but for argument’s sake, let’s even say that tax increase is involuntary, meaning taxpayers won’t get to vote on it because of law or policy. That’s not a pleasing proposition.

It’s easy to say, “we’re saving on costs and attracting new investment, because we’re working towards anticipated growth in the community.” It’s not easy to say, “and your property taxes are going to go up 73%. And you can’t vote on it.”

Your proposal’s benefits should absolutely be stated up front, but let’s consider why and how you should “just say it” about the tax hike (and we don’t even recommend sugarcoating it).

  • By outlining the need and benefits first, you emphasize the public’s collective gain while also setting an expectation we all understand: if you want something nice, you’ve got to pay for it.
  • When delivering the actual tax increase, lay it out in “average taxpayer” terms. For example, we always used to quantify tax rate hikes based on a home assessed at $100,000…but there are not many of those homes around anymore. It’s better to calculate an example tax hike based on the average or median home value in your tax district, then let property owners extrapolate for themselves.
  • In this example, we’re imagining our audience won’t get to vote on the tax increase. So how do we make them feel empowered instead of exploited? Highlight your transparency (“look, we’re telling you up front”). Listen and respond to every single question on social media, in emails, at a public forum, and wherever else they come from (this is all where a focused PR firm can help). Finally, highlight transparency and listen and answer every question – again.

A favorite declaration of mine is, “no one can say you didn’t tell them.” If you (or we) do the job right and communicate the tough message as transparently as possible, then your audience will remember that when they receive the ballot or the tax bill or the news about your project. They still may not like it, and some might even rally against it, but there’s one powerful pitfall you can always control: never let someone say “I didn’t know, no one told me!”

Just say it.

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