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Communications in 10-5-1

“Honey, we need to talk.”

Just as in our personal relations, communications are essential for fostering good community relations. In my experience, most cities do a poor job of communicating—ironically, even more so in this era of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

When cities do communicate information, it’s often a “once and done” thing. To be really effective, though, a message needs to be sent ten times with the hope that the public gets it five times in order to understand it once. This is the origins of 10-5-1.

If communications is a core function of good government—and I believe it is—then local government needs to understand Marshall McLuhan’s basic communications principles regarding the Message, the Messengar, and the Media.


Nothing undercuts public confidence and trust in government more than conflicting or mixed messages. It is essential that the city council and mayor/manager are clear on the key messages they need to communicate to the community.

Assuming the council has done a good job in its annual, goal-setting process, community support for those goals will largely depend on how well they are communicated. Quarterly meetings of a mixed council/staff “communications team” is one way to shape the initial key message(s) and then periodically update or revise these as needed.


It was McLuhan who said “the Messenger IS the Message.” Once the message is clear, the next step is to determine who is the best person to deliver it?

Each councilmember has a topic or issue that he/she is passionate about. A good communications strategy can match the councilmember with the right issue and have him/her deliver the message. When this happens, a councilmember's authentic concern and passion will come through and the message will resonate more meaningfully for the public.

If the message concerns a technical issue, perhaps the city engineer or public works director is the right messenger. For public safety messages, use the police chief or fire chief. There will also be plenty of opportunities where the mayor or city manager may be the best choice for giving voice to something—don’t overuse staff, though. Instead, mix it up amongst council and staff.

Even everyday line staff can be employed as effective messengers for certain topics: For example, a member of your streets crew talking about potholes and asphalt crack sealing can best underscore the need for transportation benefit district funding.


Mix it up! Harkening back to the 10-5-1 theme, getting messages out has never been cheaper. The danger is that your message gets lost in the clutter and “noise” of others competing for the public’s attention. Obviously a clear message and the right messenger is important but jurisdictions also need to see that the information gets out in multiple ways through different forms of media.

Press releases are great, especially if you have a local paper. Be sure to write your press release in such a way that it can be easily copied since newspapers also suffer from fewer staff and less time. Social media like Facebook and Twitter can also be useful and very timely, but be sure to keep a record copy to comply with the Public Records Act.

Don’t assume everyone gets everything you send out. Remember, people process and understand information in different ways so it’s good to use a variety of options such as text, quotes, charts, tables, graphs, and photos. Direct mail postcards for a public, open house discussion or annual/special reports can be particularly effective. In short: don’t rely on any one means of communicating.

Change the Media or Messenger, Not the Message

So again, whenever communicating, mix it up—use different messengers, different media and/or methods—but keep your message consistent. Repeat this process in different ways by switching up your messengers and/or employing different tools. Repeat it, then repeat it again: That's 10-5-1.

Questions? Comments?

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About Bob Jean

Bob Jean writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Bob Jean retired in 2010 after 15 years as the City Manager for University Place, Washington. He has over 35 years of city and county management experience. He is a past Board Member for AWC. He received the ICMA national Award for Staff Development and Training. He currently serves as an advisor to cities and counties as a Range Rider for WCMA.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.