Managing Public Perception

March 1, 2014

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Have you read the comments sections of local news stories online? They’re depressing. Readers make all sorts of accusations behind anonymous usernames, especially if it’s about their local government. And when it comes to government, even if it’s a positive story, someone will have a negative comment. If you believed all these comments, or read enough of them, you would think our government agencies, at all levels, employ lazy people, waste money, and are corrupt.

Here’s a reader comment courtesy of SFGate.com about police vehicle purchases: “Is this where the money to hire more police went? Oh, maybe the mayor went on another vacation at the expense of taxpayers. New cars and SUVs — now maybe they will be better able to do their jobs.”

Here’s another from NorthEscambia.com about the purchase of a natural gas truck: “Please explain the reasoning for spending our tax dollars on a blinged-out municipal work truck.”

I’m not saying all negative comments are unwarranted, but there is often more outrage than wrong­doing. These comments contribute to a negative perception of government and its workers. Commenters often forget the individuals behind the government, the people doing their best to keep public services going.

Scrutiny About Vehicle Purchasing

An example of what is sometimes viewed as wasteful spending is agencies purchasing vehicles that are seen as unnecessarily large, expensive, or luxurious.

Take the example of SUV police vehicles. I’ve seen numerous local news stories of police chiefs or fleet personnel defending their decision to purchase SUVs instead of sedans. There’s actually an analysis by Vincentric of MY-2010 vehicles that found the Chevrolet Tahoe had the lowest total cost of ownership over the available police sedans. (That’s the most current data available for police cars.) That’s not a detail an average resident would know when he sees a cop in an SUV and thinks, “Why does he need that gas-guzzling car?”

A fleet manager told me he’d been bashed by local media for purchasing hybrid vehicles when they first came out — a decision that, as he had predicted, later proved to save in fuel costs.

Get Good Press

There are ways to combat or prevent negative public perception, one of which is to get good press.

Communicate effectively at public meetings and prove you’re making the best decision. That means if you’re at a council meeting, you have the facts and numbers straight to state your case  with confidence, justify your requests, and answer any questions that come up. The more a project costs, or the more controversial it is, the more questions you should be prepared to answer.

Another way to improve public perception is to build relationships with the agency’s public information officers (PIOs). PIOs can help disseminate information about recognition programs or projects that have resulted in savings. They can make sure good PR gets out to the right people with the right facts — it’s embarrassing having an official agency release with wrong numbers in it, which has happened before.

I’ve also seen mention of fleets in State of the City addresses, with elected leaders praising fleet accomplishments rather than just listing goals for improvement. Or consider asking city council members or county commissioners to recognize fleet employees for attaining a goal, such as completing a multi-year project or obtaining an ASE Blue Seal of Excellence. Local news agencies are likely to cover the annual speech as well as meetings of elected officials.

And there is an effective way to deal with those negative comments online. It might be more difficult for large cities to accomplish this, but in the NorthEscambia.com article cited earlier, the utilities PIO responded to most of the questions posed on the comment board. She responded three times, and hers was the last comment posted.

How often have you reconsidered your decisions based on how the public might view them? What are some ways to handle negative public perception?                                                    

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  1. 1. Kelly Reagan [ March 05, 2014 @ 11:47AM ]

    Public purchasing quite often does not lend itself to "efficiency or good econimics" rather most of us are required to follow an establsihed procrument process dictated by "code": If "code" is not followed then we are required to "bid-waive" our legislation, yes even if it may be the best descision for a purchase. The "waiver" places our heads above the bush, where in fact it could get chopped off by both our electeds and the general public. The key to success is to educate, educate and inform those driving policy as well as the general public - as you said Thi, the best defense is a good offense, good press goes a long way, but this takes time and work. Yes as managers it is our responsibility to inform, educate and drive the best/right decision for our entities regardless of internal and external perceptions. Making a poor decision in an attempt to "sooth the beast" may haunt us and our end user division for many, many years to come!

    This is where our built up credibility "capital" can best be used and spent quite often with our policy makers. Trust takes years of doing things right and well and can be easily erroded with one major mistake - so do your homework, know your material, the pros and the cons and be prepared to defend your position with facts. Leave the emotion at the door but not the passion to succeed. Great article and I agree with you Thi - get good press, get recognition from your leaders, get others on board with your vision - all this helps to dispell those negative comments that hit all of us at times.

  2. 2. Dennis R Hogan CPFP CAFM [ March 24, 2014 @ 11:19AM ]

    Dealing with negative public preception is only part of this story. The other piece that I see struggles with constantly is the level that some vendors will go to to try and create an environment of negativity based on bid results. When I designed this organization about 7 years ago we founded everything on a baseline of if we cannot sit at a table of tax payers and explain definitively what we did and why then it might not be the best solution to an issue.We have been able to build a "fan" base with a few key people who saw our fleet go from rusty old pieces to a very professional looking fleet that is short on frills but solid on workability for the job. Our citizens see this and comment. Being up front, approachable, and never too busy to talk to those paying the bills makes this possible. When we become to big for our fellow tax payers we fail to deliver the basic succes we are hired to acheive, public trust. As long as we continue to work toward acheiving and maintaining public trust we will have success but it certainly does not help our cause to see government officials failing to do the right thing casting a negative shadow on all of us. Maintain a high sense of integrity and never give anyone cause to question yours.

  3. 3. John Clements [ April 02, 2014 @ 11:18AM ]

    In the world of government fleet management very close to 100% of our financial resources are taxpayer's money. And taxpayers, like it or not, develop perceptions about the money they involuntarily send us. Unfortunately "perception" is so powerful that as we all know many times it supercedes the facts and truth about any situation. Today add perception, the public's negativity toward government and the visibility of bad government decisions or activities and you can have a very volitile and hostile situation for the fleet manager. In my experience a couple of the most valuable and effective tools againist negative perception are: (as stated) have all your decision making facts in order hopefully before taking any action, leave the media/public or other critics no where to go with negative information by having not only accurate facts but proactively taking responsibility for bad decisions and 3) use the KISS principle which in my experience with internal or external audiences is to take what may be complex issues and break them down into layman terms and concepts. I have had more success explaining any fleet situation by framing it in terms of their own personal vehicle. People can relate to their car breaking down, making car payments, buying certain types of vehicles, etc. Good article and thoughts Thi.

  4. 4. Steve Kibler [ April 07, 2014 @ 01:32PM ]

    I don't know which was better, the article or the comments. After we suffered years of bad press, we hired the same newspaper reporter as our PIO and the press got better. Public perception kind of an oxymoron; I would label it ignorant emotion. Our electric vehicle program generated a barrage of condemnation from citizens. Eventually fires run out of fuel and goes out, public perception seems to be an eternal flame.


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Author Bio

Thi Dao

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Executive Editor

Thi is the executive editor of Government Fleet magazine. She is interested in maintenance management and alternative fuels.


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