City hires PR firm to help communicate with residents

By Scott Mahoney -

Communicating with residents has never been the city’s strong suit, according to members of Oberlin city council.

“When I first came on council last January, I remember posing the question about how we’re getting the word out on a particular issue,” councilwoman Linda Slocum said. “I started to realize there was a lack, in my opinion, of how we were letting people know what was happening.”

On Monday night, council took a step that it believes will help eliminate the problem, entering into a one-year agreement with a Hudson-based public relations firm called the Impact Group.

The city plans to use the firm’s services for community engagement efforts, according to a memo to council from city manager Rob Hillard and finance director Sal Talarico.

They want to tap the Impact Group to promote economic development, water quality reports, levy renewal, community notices, and its Efficiency Smart and Community Choice programs.

The latter would allow Oberlinians to donate renewable energy credits to a community-betterment fund, which drew dissent from some residents in attendance.

Councilman Kelley Singleton said the Community Choice program is just one of the items the Impact Group would help the city promote.

Members of council believe a number of residents don’t realize rebate opportunities that are available to them.

“It amazes me how few people understand what sorts of rebates they can get for buying a new energy-efficient refrigerator, for instance,” councilwoman Sharon Soucy said. “This is a very small issue but we have money sitting in funds that should be used. It doesn’t save energy when it’s sitting in a pot.

“As hard as we’ve tried to get people to realize they can get a very nice rebate for a wide range of appliances, people are not utilizing this to the extent they can.”

With the agreement, Impact group will assist the city of Oberlin with website content creation, internal communications, presentation creation, crisis communications services, newsletter coordination and writing, and social media assistance, to name a few.

The one-year agreement will cost Oberlin $77,700 and if the city decides to continue the contract after the one year, it will pay $48,000 a year.

Soucy pointed out that the services offered are not limited to online communications.

“We need to remind ourselves that not everyone is online,” she said. “A lot of people are not online, and I think it behooves us to find ways to communicate with those folks who are not on Facebook, or not on Twitter, who don’t get their information online. Not everyone is online, and not everyone reads the Oberlin News-Tribune.”

One of the first steps Impact Group will take will be to gather data about just what the community wants from its city government. This information will be gathered by a phone poll of around 300 people, consisting of 28 questions, as well as an online survey.

With the number of changes to key positions inside the city, Soucy believes now is the time to bring in a firm like the Impact Group.

“I think this is a particularly perfect time to bring in a group like this,” Soucy said. “We have a new city manager, we’re about to hire a new police chief, and we have yet to hire a new electric director. When a city is in a state of transition like this, I think it’s an ideal time to help those folks who are our leaders understand us better.”

Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney on Twitter.

By Scott Mahoney