Rethinking Government Communications

Communicating today is tough for anyone trying to do it. It used to be easy. Craft a message in a pre-approved format (inverted pyramid, anyone?), then give it to pre-approved people, then Miller Time. Today? Not so much.

Lots of us still do it that way, though. And in lots of cases, it’s not because we don’t want to do more. Or be more targeted. Or take advantage of all of the new avenues of communication. It’s just that we already have full time jobs, and inadequate staff, and not enough money. (Welcome to government, my friend.)

Adding Facebook to our portfolio was a tough enough sell. Now you’re telling me that Medium is another thing to add, and I need a Meerkat, too? And I’m going to sell the idea of a live-streaming rodent to my bosses exactly how? It sucks, no doubt.

The real problem, though, isn’t that we aren’t doing these things. We’re providing the level of output that we’ve always done, and have done successfully. No, the real problem is that others are doing these things, going the extra mile.

You think I’m joking about Obama? Hardly. He really is the problem. At least for overworked government communicators. The White House today is setting the stage for how government can communicate, and pretty soon, the rest of us will be expected to do the same.

With that in mind, you can see the looming conflict between government capacity and public expectation. We will be seen as failing our constituents for simply doing what we’ve always done, even though we haven’t been given the capacity to meet those increased expectations.

The solution is easy to see; it is harder to do. It is basically us adopting this new worldview and adapting our work to the expectations of the public. How I imagine it will happen will look like a diffusion of innovation curve.

Our innovators are the folks on the CDC social media team, at the White House, and at NASA. Early adopters are just now starting to learn how best to create media. The rest of us, though, while we’re usually perfectly happy to be part of the early or late majority, are in danger of falling out of step with the public. If we haven’t already.

What’s needed, then, is a radical reimagining of how small, traditionally underfunded government agencies present themselves to the world. That S-curve up there won’t help. The how, again, is perplexing. How do you change everything in a field that is almost completely hesitant to change?

How about this: if you can’t change the end result, instead consider changing the process. If we can’t expand dedicated communications staff to meet the expanded communications burden, why not expand the definition of our communications staff? Why not decentralize a lot of the day-to-day social media work to those best placed to tell those stories? Yes, let regular employees get online and tweet and livestream and give the public a view into what goes on in their agencies’ work.

Scary? Absolutely! But, given the choice between being completely out of touch with our audiences, and having non-communications people talk about what they do everyday… Well, which is really worse in the long run? The details and rules and training definitely need to be worked out, but given how quickly we can lose the ear — and trust — of the public, isn’t it worth the risk?