Last week a reader asked why Truro has created the position of communications and marketing coordinator. “What are we marketing and to whom?” wrote Ellyn Weiss.
Truro Town Manager Darrin Tangeman was asked the same question by the select board at a recent meeting, when he announced that he had hired Katy Ward for the job. He maintains that marketing and market research are essential functions of local government, linking them to effective communications, engagement with citizens, and transparency.
Tangeman is by all accounts an effective manager, and we have found him to be knowledgeable and responsive to our questions. He acted swiftly two years ago to sever the town’s connection to the “Truro eNewsletter,” which used public resources to distribute propaganda about wastewater, nitrogen in drinking water, and affordable housing. And Tangeman’s own newsletter, Truro Talks, is well done.
We are big fans of communication. Asking questions and listening to answers is a lot of what we do here at the Independent. You learn, doing this work, that communication improves when there are a variety of informed voices doing it. Marketing, on the other hand, is not about the diversity of ideas — including competing ones. It’s about selling a single conclusion and getting people to buy it. Marketing is about amplifying the good news and covering up the bad.
We’ve seen this happen in state government. We’ve almost given up on trying to get answers from people at the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation about the extension of the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Wellfleet or why the state-run Wellfleet Hollow Campground has been open only three nights a week this season. All such inquiries have to go through the department’s “communications” office, which specializes not in providing information but in concealing it.
Ideally, a communications officer helps other people in the organization to write and speak clearly. Too often, however, the people in these jobs are used by management to prevent others from speaking at all. “Communications” becomes a euphemism for restricting the free flow of information instead of encouraging it.
I don’t think that’s what’s happening in Truro, and I believe that the savvy Katy Ward (who I worked with at the Provincetown Banner) would not condone such a thing. Tangeman says it’s important for the town to have a “strategic communications plan,” which he calls a “common best practice” across the country. “Unfortunately, local government in Massachusetts is still a decade behind the rest of the country in this,” he says, “because it resisted the transition to professional management of local government operations for so long.”
I have no doubt that Tangeman is right about government moving in the direction of marketing and public relations management in recent years. I’m just not sure Massachusetts being behind on this is a bad thing. In fact, I think we should all be purposeful in our resistance to it — especially in our small towns, where practicing civic life at the grass roots is more to the point than building layers of control.