Behavioral Health Model Ordinance Project Communications Toolkit

The Behavioral Health Model Ordinance Project Communications Toolkit was developed as a communications resource to support jurisdictions, providers, and others in siting community-based behavioral health facilities. It accompanies a model ordinance which is available here: model ordinance

This page summarizes the nine strategies in the toolkit and offers links to resources and examples that may be helpful. The full toolkit is available as a pdf here: download the toolkit

Communications strategies

Answer these project-specific questions to understand what needs to be communicated to whom, and the level of effort to anticipate.

  • Do we have a stated purpose and community value? Why should this project go here?
  • Do we understand who is most and least affected by this project? Do we understand their core concerns?
  • Who is the right messenger to tell our story to each audience?
  • How credible is the government on issues of public safety and community health?
  • Who does the community trust on these issues?
  • What is the most conducive venue for our message?
  • What is the baseline understanding or perception of the project in the proposed location?
  • What has been communicated in the media? What is the current community narrative?
  • Is misinformation circulating about the proposal? Where is it coming from and what needs to be corrected?
  • What level of risk are we willing to assume to bring this project to fruition? (See also HUD NIMBY Assessment)

Be intentional about the message and story you want the community to hear.

  • Lead with positive definitions of “mental health” and “behavioral health” which can help to counter stigma.
  • Use language that invokes a sense of collective responsibility for mental health, and that focuses on the benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Use “person-first” language. For example, describe individuals as “people with mental illness” as opposed to “mentally ill.”
  • Avoid crisis messaging that may deter public support if they feel the issue is insurmountable.
  • Review how the content is framed. For example, framing mental health as a matter of individual willpower can create barriers to public support.
  • Emphasize the providers’ responsible management of the facility and the presence of an ecosystem of supports.
  • Be as specific as possible about what mental health issues, problems, and disorders are addressed by the facility. Work with the provider to understand the specifics of the proposal. Local data from Department of Health or the Department of Social and Human Services on the prevalence of mental health issues can be helpful.

Mobilizing individuals and entities can be one of the most effective ways to communicate. Consider cultivating allies in the following areas:

  • Behavioral Health Providers are well-equipped to speak about their operations and track record of success. Providers can speak to the various licensing and regulations that they are subject to.
  • Behavioral Health Clients and Family Members are essential for communicating the positive impact of community-based treatment and connecting to community values.
  • Local Hospitals and Health Providers. Hospitals and others from the local care network can attest to the need for community-based behavioral health services.
  • Nearby Businesses and Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) Neighbors are impacted groups whose public support may carry weight with broader audiences.
  • Public Officials can lend credibility to the communications campaign and speak about the facility as part of a network of needed community resources.
  • Public Safety and Emergency Services Providers may be willing to attest to the impact of untreated behavioral health issues on their work, serving as a valuable partner for providers.
  • Local Homeless and Human Services Providers may be able to discuss the role of the behavioral health facility as part of a network of resources.

There are several different reasons residents oppose land use projects, such as:

  • Misinformation: Factually incorrect understanding of project characteristics or impacts. Try to understand the source and nature of the misinformation and meet it with targeted corrections.
  • Unmet Emotional Needs: The need for respect and recognition in land use decision-making processes. For many property owners, any perceived threat to its value is met with resistance and fear. While there is no evidence that a behavioral health facility will reduce property values, this fear should be addressed with personal acknowledgement and one-on-one meetings.
  • Conflicts of Values: When land uses are considered moral or immoral by different parties. Conduct early research to identify the community’s top values and emphasize shared values and priorities in public meetings.
  • Conflicts of Interests: Land use projects create real and perceived positive and negative impacts to different parties. People may be more sensitive to the loss of an existing benefit than the equivalent gain of a benefit. Properly executed, good neighbor agreements (GNA) can help to memorialize negotiations between the community and the sponsor/service agency.

A comprehensive communication plan helps to focus on the needed messages, mobilize support, address opposition, use resources strategically, and proactively cultivate safe, healthy, and inclusive communities. For teams with multiple partners, a communications plan can make sure everyone is “on message” and divide roles and labor across what can be a large effort.

A basic plan will cover:

  • What is the message or objective?
  • Who are the audiences? It is critical to segment the audiences to be strategic in communications. Plans to address “the community” or “the public” as one body are rarely effective for complex issues.
  • What are each audience’s values and concerns? How is our project addressing them?
  • What does each audience need to know and hear?
  • How does each audience receive and integrate information?
  • What are the messages and strategies for each audience?
  • What resources are available to develop and implement the messages and strategies? This includes existing collateral and assets, relationships with partners and media, and budget.

The media, including traditional news media such as newspaper, TV, and radio, as well as social media and blogs, is a key communications channel for reaching broad audiences and influencing public discourse.

Here are tips for working with media when you are in a reactive position:

  • Schedule the interview for a later date, refresh yourself on the key messages, and practice responses.
  • Hold the interview at the site and offer a walking tour of the facility or a similar existing facility.
  • Bring in partners or a provider spokesperson if someone else on the team is leading the communications.

Here are ideas for building a more proactive position:

  • Cultivate relationships with individual reporters and media covering local news and community issues.
  • Issue press releases or media advisories about the development at key milestones.
  • Invite letters to the editor from key partners.
  • Prepare fact sheets or websites as an information hub to direct inquiries.

Public hearings are often a requirement of a facility development process. It is common mistake to center communications planning around the public hearing; however, it is a poor venue for the previously mentioned strategies including communicating accurate information, building community support, and attending to sources of opposition such as emotional needs and conflicts of values. In an ideal scenario, the public hearing is the quiet denouement to a period of communication, small group and one-on-one meetings, and coalition building. It should be a formality where no key stakeholders are hearing something for the first time.

Instead, precede the public hearing with smaller group meetings of stakeholders designed to build the objectives of the communication plan (i.e., mobilize support, address opposition, work with media, etc.).

Providers with proven track records and positive reputations in the management of their facilities are likely to have greater success siting new facilities. The following are ways that providers can maintain these relationships:

  • Hold a community open house after project completion but before residents move in so people can tour it and ask questions.
  • Pass out direct contact cards to neighbors; and update them if staffing changes.
  • Maintain clean grounds, fresh paint, and landscaping.
  • Encourage residents, staff, and visitors to drive slowly and maintain a friendly neighborhood presence.

Governments are changing all the time as are community demographics, attitudes, and perceptions. Reflect on the effectiveness of your communication strategies and look for trends in participation and attitudes over time to continually improve and collect data for your next communication. Here are some ideas for data to reflect on:

  • How successful were we in communicating the project (total reach, comments, meeting attendance)?
  • Did we reach a cross-section of the affected population by age, race, home and business ownership status?
  • How many media outlets used our messaging? What was the total circulation?
  • Which communications methods and strategies were the most effective in creating positive community sentiment or correcting misinformation? Which ones were missteps or not worth the effort?
  • How successful were we in cultivating community support? Who turned out to be the most influential allies in this process? How can we thank and acknowledge them and continue to cultivate that support?
  • What did the process surface about this community’s values? How was it different, if at all, from what we expected from the initial situation assessment?
  • What was the level of community understanding or level of misinformation on our key messages related to behavioral health needs and treatments?

Communications toolkit overview

Commerce and BERK recorded a live webinar on 9/23/21 to provide an overview of the communications toolkit, and answer questions.  A recording of that webinar is below.