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Federal Communication In Turbulent Times


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Federal communicators have a defined set of duties as per the Government Accountability Office, and they are also bound by a legal and ethical framework within which their duty is to the citizen first. This white paper contains collected writing by Dr. Blumenthal on these topics and related matters pertaining to crisis communication.

Published in: Government & Nonprofit
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Federal Communication In Turbulent Times

  1. 1. Federal Communication in Turbulent Times Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. (2019) Public Domain
  2. 2. Page i Disclaimer All opinions are the author’s own. No endorsements expressed or implied. These essays are not meant to offer authoritative advice. Where questions arise, please consult your agency or other appropriate source of official information or guidance.
  3. 3. Page ii Dedication With gratitude to God, this reader is dedicated to my family and the Federal communications community, which daily confronts the sacred challenge of preserving our democracy through the content we share with the public.
  4. 4. Page iii Table of Contents DISCLAIMER ............................................................................................................... i DEDICATION .............................................................................................................. ii PART I. THE BASICS OF FEDERAL COMMUNICATION What Is a “Federal Communicator?”..............................................................2 Who Does the Federal Communicator Serve?................................................3 5 Kinds of Communication the Federal Government Should Do...................6 The Vital Importance of the “No-Spin” Zone.................................................8 PART II. THE EVER-PRESENT CRISIS Effective Crisis Communication Requires A Prepared Team ......................10 The 10 Stages of Every Communication Crisis............................................12 5 Obstacles to Handling A Communication Crisis.......................................15 When the Client Doesn’t Want to Talk.........................................................17 5 Ways to Show Employees You Care During A Crisis ..............................18 PART III. CRISIS AND OPPORTUNITY Wikileaks and the Crisis of Government Communication (2016)................21 Why We’re Losing the Brand War Against ISIS (2015)..............................25 Law Enforcement and the Crisis of Public Confidence (2017)....................30 5 Recommendations for Change-Makers......................................................32 CLOSING THOUGHTS................................................................................................34
  6. 6. Page 2 What Is a “Federal Communicator?” There are many people who can potentially fit this category. For the sake of simplicity, this reader uses an operational definition that is somewhat narrow. Here, “Federal communicator” means a career civil servant who is paid to convey content on behalf of the Federal government to an external audience or audiences. Please note that the author’s experience is non-military, and the opinions conveyed should be taken in that light. Additionally, the author wishes to express her respect for all those who support government communication, in whatever capacity they do so.
  7. 7. Page 3 Who Does the Federal Communicator Serve? Government agencies limited in terms of what they can say. But they are also proscribed in the way that they can say it. Specifically, since 2010, it is legally required to talk to people in a way that they can easily understand; the term we use for this is “plain language.” But the imperative to speak plainly only scratches the surface of the civil servant’s duty to the public. What about substance? What happens when the Federal communicator is asked to communicate to the public in ways that serve the agency, but not the public interest? Although there is no legal framework that addresses this specific question, a parallel can be found in the mandate of the public lawyer to serve the public interest first as the communicator understands it. In 1973, The Professional Ethics Committee of The Federal Bar Association stated: “The government lawyer assumes a public trust, for the government, over-all and in each of its parts, is responsible to the people in our democracy with its representative form of government. Each part of the government has the obligation of carrying out, in the public interest, its assigned responsibility in a manner consistent with the Constitution, and the applicable laws and regulations. In contrast, the private practitioner represents the client’s personal or private interest.” PROFESSIONAL CODES OF CONDUCT In addition to the Employee Standards of Conduct for civil servants and the Hatch Act, the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC), an independent body of professionals at the Federal, state, and local levels, has an extensive code of conduct that, if followed, will support the Federal public affairs specialist in carrying out their duties legally and ethically. It is reprinted below: “Members of the NAGC are dedicated to the goals of better communication, understanding, and cooperation among all people. We believe that truth is sacred; that providing public information is an essential civil service; and that each citizen has a right to equal, full, understandable, and timely facts about the activities, policies and people of the agencies comprising his or her government. NAGC members’ professional conduct must comport with the association’s Code of Ethics. NAGC members:
  8. 8. Page 4 will, in the execution of their duties, ensure the products they produce, and the communication they conduct, represent the highest standards of professional excellence. will, in the execution of their duties, ensure their conduct serves the public interest and promotes transparency and accountability of government. will conduct themselves in a manner that reflects their understanding of the public trust placed with them, and their commitment to being a steward of that trust. will dedicate themselves to the timely release of factual and accurate information about government. will take swift and effective action to prevent the public release of false or misleading information. will not knowingly provide false or misleading information to the public. advocate the axiom of ‘maximum disclosure, minimum delay’ bounded by the tenets of security, accuracy, policy and propriety. will not allow personal beliefs, prejudices, or emotions to influence their professional conduct. will never lie to the media or public. will not knowingly or intentionally withhold information that is publicly releasable. will represent no conflicting or competing interests and will comply fully with all statutes, executive orders, and regulations pertaining to personal disclosure of such interests. avoid the possibility of any improper use of information by an “insider” or third party and never use inside information for personal gain. guarantee or promise the achievement of no specified result that is beyond the member’s direct control. accept no fees, commissions, gifts, promises of future consideration, or any other material or intangible valuable that is, or could be perceived to be, connected with public service employment or activities. safeguard the confidence of both present and former employees, and of information acquired in meetings and documents, as required by law, regulation, and judgment. protect the professional reputation or practice of another person, private organization, or government agency from wrongful injury.
  9. 9. Page 5 participate in no activity that could manipulate the price of a company’s securities.” The problem is, none of the above specifically outline the duties that a Federal communicator has, and as such, their time can easily be filled with nonessential duties at best and heavily self-promotional activities at worst. Therefore, the Federal communicator must spend time applying their professional judgment to the direction they are given and seek guidance where appropriate.
  10. 10. Page 6 5 Kinds of Communication the Federal Government Should Do The public wants and needs to hear a great deal from Federal communicators. In its 2016 report on “public relations” spending, the Government Accountability Office lays out exactly what is legitimate activity in this area. 1. GENERAL INFORMATION Anything you would find in the “About Us” section of a website is covered by this category. It may sound kind of bland, but the information to be found here would typically be of interest to Congress, the media, and the public with respect to accountability and transparency. 2. CUSTOMER SERVICE Typically, the public has questions about what the agency does that are not anticipated by the agency itself (often there are suggestions as well). This kind of communication is responsive to those questions without judging whether they’re “legitimate,” “important,” “appropriate,” “fair,” and so on. 3. COMPLIANCE For citizens to follow the law, they must know what the law is. It is critical that government agencies clearly explain what people are supposed to do to fulfill their obligations. Anything in that category goes here. 4. SOCIAL MARKETING The government has an incredible amount of benefits, information, products and services on offer that many people don’t know they are entitled to and can’t figure out how to take advantage of. Communication in this category bridges that gap and encourages people to take advantage of this. And while some would limit the term “social marketing” in ways that refer specifically to health or lifestyle issues, there are other offerings (such as business opportunities,
  11. 11. Page 7 public auctions, educational options, and more) that can substantially improve the citizen’s quality of life. All communication of this type goes here. 5. RECRUITMENT Without human beings, the government cannot fulfill its basic functions. Therefore, it is legitimate for agencies to spend money to fill and refill their talent pipelines. Recruitment can take the form of everything from educational sessions, to job advertising, to open houses, and more.
  12. 12. Page 8 The Vital Importance of the “No-Spin” Zone The U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report in 2016 referring to “Public Relations Spending” by the Federal government (the title is misleading as the Federal government is not allowed to engage in public relations unless the money is “specifically appropriated for that purpose.”) Per the GAO, as summarized by the Congressional Research Service, this means that Congressional appropriations may not be used to do things like extol the greatness of the agency, convey a partisan message, or hide the fact that the government is talking. WHAT DO YOU MEAN “WE CAN’T TELL GOOD NEWS STORIES?” While most agencies understand that they cannot behave in a partisan manner, and cannot offer up covert propaganda, it is frequently difficult for leadership to conceive of the fact that they aren’t supposed to use their communicators “to make the agency look good.” This is not to say that public relations is bad. The Public Relations Society of America casts it as relationship-building, calling it “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Nevertheless, from a Federal government point of view, we are not supposed to “build mutually beneficial relationships” with anyone. This is because the end goal of a “mutually beneficial relationship” is to make the customer look good, and we generally are not allowed to do this on the taxpayer’s dime, again unless money is specifically allocated for the government to do so.
  14. 14. Page 10 Effective Crisis Communication Requires A Prepared Team When something happens, the worst thing you can do is "wing it.” Here is a general framework for getting organized. 1. ASSEMBLING THE TEAM • Senior leadership: The most senior two people in the organization • Core communication team: Communication director, subject matter expert, communication strategist, digital engagement strategist, lawyer, 24/7/365 situation monitoring • Spokespeople: Official spokesperson, press contact, Congressional relations, customer service • Editorial: Writer, editor/proofreader, fact checker, document approver, social media points of contact, web development/content • Visuals: Videographer, photographer, designer • Mission support: Knowledge management (e.g. version control/internal knowledge portal or shared folder updates, telephone coverage, event arrangements, etc.) 2. INFORMATION CHANNELS • Face to Face: Meetings, briefings, interviews • One-way digital communication: Email/text subscriber communications, article/op- ed/blog post, web updates, social media messages, intranet, internal television monitors • Interactive digital communication: Responses to questions posed over social media, "ask me anything" sessions, customer service • Downloads: Fact sheets, photos, incident reports, and other documentation available from dedicated web page
  15. 15. Page 11 3. KEY AUDIENCES Note: The below is a very generic list. Develop a deeply customized, segmented list of your key audiences. Don't be afraid to get into the weeds; each group will need to know what's going on, but their interest in the matter will be unique and communication to each group will need to address their specific concerns. Typical affected stakeholders include: • Senior Leadership • Media • Regulators • Elected Officials • Partners • The General Public While this may seem daunting, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to plan. Take a bit of time, as a group, to map out how you will handle the occasional chaos that inevitably accompanies organizational life
  16. 16. Page 12 The 10 Stages of Every Communication Crisis 1. PRECIPITATING EVENT Something happens. It can be one event, at one time or many events over a long period. It can be related events, or events that seem unrelated. Of course, things happen all the time that are “not good,” but not all of them rise to the level of a scandal or a crisis. A “not-good happening” becomes a “precipitating event” when the public defines it as a crisis. (The outrage happens in Stage 4, so crises are defined retroactively.) 2. OPERATIONAL CONSEQUENCE The crisis has an impact on someone or something. Someone is injured or dies, their rights are violated, there is harm to the environment. Whatever it is, the effects are tangible and documented. 3. DENIAL People tend to think that “good organizations automatically acknowledge a problem.” That may be true sometimes, but not all the time. In fact, the default mode for every individual and organization is to resist recognizing a problem. This is not an active choice but a manifestation of survival mode, as well as change aversion. But in the case of a crisis, the key words to remember are “the faster the better.” Denial may work for a time, but it tends to backfire in the end. The first mover generally has the advantage. In deciding whether to “acknowledge a problem” the organization must make a strategic decision as to whether they are creating a problem where there was none in the first place, or proactively dissipating a crisis that may arise later because the public reacts against something they had done previously. The best course of action is usually to act first and dissipate. There should never be a question, and if a question has arisen it is better to share the data and dispel gossip and rumor.
  17. 17. Page 13 4. PUBLIC REACTION Stakeholders get word and get mad. Whether it’s the public, the media, Congress, a “reporter,” or what have you—they resist, and they resist vocally. They file suit, demonstrate, start social media campaigns, tell their friends, share documents legitimately or illegitimately. What makes this stage a stage is the decision to speak out. 5. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, NARRATIVE, AND ASSIGNMENT OF RESPONSIBILITY The public reaction leads to a decision within the organization that there is a crisis— otherwise there would not be an outcry. Upon this recognition, there is a statement of some kind. This is where lawyers and communicators tend to disagree as the lawyers will want to be more protective and say as little as possible, whereas the communicators will want to take a more open approach. This is because communicators know that even if your narrative is not perfect, the fact that you shared it openly makes you credible. Lawyers know that if you say things that are contradictory or that reflect incorrect actions, there are legal consequences. It’s a difficult discussion to have which is why it is important that all sides of the team respect one another and work together. 6. INVESTIGATION In some form or fashion, there is a fact-finding process aimed at unearthing evidence and sharing them with a judicial body, formal or informal. The more impartial and unbiased the investigation and the more transparent its findings, the more useful this stage in dissipating the crisis. 7. SUSPENSION OF OPERATIONS Now comes a period, formally announced or not, where nothing significant happens until the outcome of the investigation is determined. This stage is extremely important. Trying to “go on as usual” ultimately undermines operations. If there is a problem it is important to recognize it
  18. 18. Page 14 and stop, even temporarily, even if life could go on. This shows the organization’s seriousness about dealing with it. 8. REPORT-OUT, PUNISHMENT AND ACTION The findings of the investigation are made public in some way, the more transparently the better. The person or entity responsible for wrongdoing is formally censured and/or penalized. It is important that people see the findings and see the justice being meted out. This restores the lost faith in the system. Part of this stage is a decision to do things differently—to act. The organization must accept its “punishment” and do something physical, significant and substantial to address the crisis they tend to do better. 9. GRIEF AND MOURNING Even after the issue is resolved, there is a period during which the public asks in a publicly what went wrong, how things could have gotten to this point, and expresses pent-up emotion over the pain it has caused. It is important that there be a public conversation. Usually during this stage there is a discussion of “who is really responsible” and it becomes clear that more people are involved, who facilitated or looked the other way when the wrongdoing occurred. This phase should not primarily be about finger-pointing, but rather about learning so that the agency can make real improvements that will alleviate or minimize a similar crisis in the future. As such it is important that the organization reach out to those who held it accountable. That some respect and reconciliation occur between the two parties. 10. MONUMENT, COMMEMORATION AND RITUAL There is some public, physical display that reflects a commitment to do things differently in the future. A statue or permanent structure of some sort may be built. A ritual, a ceremony, a holiday — something without functional value that purely commemorates our memory of what went wrong and our commitment not to repeat those same mistakes.
  19. 19. Page 15 5 Obstacles to Handling A Communication Crisis 1. TAKING IT PERSONALLY The fact that there is a crisis does not mean that you are guilty of doing anything wrong. It simply means that your customers and/or other key stakeholders perceive that you’re doing something wrong. They are concerned enough about how you’re handling your mission that they do any of the following things: question your integrity, challenge your leadership ability, complain to others, sue you, change suppliers, and/or recruit others to patronize other businesses. 2. DELAYING THE RESPONSE Most organizations manage communication crises badly because they don’t believe, or don’t want to believe, that there is a problem. So, they wait until it’s too late to admit that something is wrong, and/or they underestimate the magnitude of the crisis. Compounding the matter, they take the crisis personally and therefore don’t trust expert communication specialists to handle it, preferring instead their own counsel or the counsel of their trusted but poorly qualified advisers. 3. MISSING OR FAULTY ASSESSMENT TOOLS Fearful and anxious about failing, many organizations lack the combined qualitative and quantitative skill sets needed to assess customer and other stakeholder perceptions in a robust and ongoing way. If you don’t know what’s going on when things are “normal,” and/or you don’t measure the trends in customer perception over time, you won’t be well-positioned to distinguish for a CEO the difference between a ten-minute rainstorm and a massive influx of rock-sized hail. 4. POOR VISUAL COMMUNICATION Memes are a shorthand visual comment offered to express an opinion of a complex situation. They are just one example of a language used by customers to communicate with other customers in ways that are outside your span of control. If you can’t get into the ring and
  20. 20. Page 16 influence the memetic conversation, you are not going to get the customer’s attention. This is of course only one example among many that are deeply stakeholder-dependent. Some of your customer segments may rely on detailed white papers to absorb and react to an issue; where are you on that? Either stay in close touch with how your customer communicates or watch as your influence gets elbowed to the side quickly in favor of other, more savvy information providers. 5. SHARING INFORMATION TOO SLOWLY In a moment of crisis, your employees should be wearing the equivalent of bodycams as they interact with the people affected. Instead of allowing other people to “leak” your story, your video, photos, live interviews, and nonstop facility tours provide a direct and embedded experience for anyone who is curious about what is going on. You supplement this information with a robust public-domain information download center so that anyone concerned can access materials for themselves, analyze them and share them at will. To supplement the unfiltered information, you explain the context within which your organization is acting, so that seemingly difficult-to-understand decisions make sense to the outside viewer.
  21. 21. Page 17 When the Client Doesn’t Want to Talk It happens to all of us at some point: Communication about things that matter becomes impossible, because problems are denied until they become an unpleasant crisis. The prevalent belief: “out of sight, out of mind.” On top of that, crises are ignored until they become catastrophes: “Talking about problems only makes them real.” Meanwhile, communicators who challenge the paradigm with best practices are typically viewed as a threat, with their influence (and even their presence) minimized accordingly. A very long time ago, as a junior public affairs specialist, I printed a thousand pages of research on a very real crisis that was about to explode, and did explode, and it was awful. But this was before it happened. And the person to whom I showed it looked at the pile of paper and turned to me and said: “Be careful.” The person who said this was not my “enemy.” Just the opposite—they were obviously concerned for my professional welfare. Because I’d hit that third rail, full-on, dead center. If I pressed forward any further, I’d undoubtedly cross the red-hot, nuclear “red line.” Bad situations build up over time. They’re complex; they’re multi-stakeholder; they normally involve a smelly stew of greed, sometimes sex, and the lust for power. Only the fool would dare to step in without knowing if they’re pulling on the red wire that sets off the bomb, or the green one that defuses it. Most errors in judgment involve ignorance like this, plus a healthy measure of ego— wanting to be the best, to solve the intractable problem that seemingly nobody else could get their arms around. A better course of action, if you’re a communicator? Look around you, keep your instinctive and emotional antennae high, speak calmly and logically about what you see, talk about risk, but most importantly, draw in “the wisdom of the team.” By working together, leveraging the power of multiple intelligences, knowledge bases and institutional memories—plus the innate desire we all must make a difference—the chances of succeeding are much greater than they are when you go it alone.
  22. 22. Page 18 5 Ways to Show Employees You Care During a Crisis The below are some lessons learned from a federal government shutdown in 2011. 1. HOLD A MEETING WHETHER YOU HAVE ANSWERS OR NOT At my agency we held a staff meeting where people could ask questions of senior leadership, and vent as well. Even if the answers weren’t there, the people had an opportunity to be heard and supported. 2. BE MINDFUL OF NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION At the meeting, leadership showed — not just in words but in tone of voice and body language — sincere care and concern. They knew about the “ouch” factor associated with being termed “essential” or not or “exempt” or not and came prepared with the message that no matter what we were called for a furlough, we still mattered critically to the mission. 3. PRIORITIZE EMPLOYEES’ WELL-BEING We had a lot of projects going on, but to us, it seemed the agency did virtually nothing but try to figure out what was going on and what it meant to us. 4. SEEMINGLY SIMPLE GESTURES MEAN EVERYTHING The caring was shown in every way; I remember we went out to lunch and someone had to stay back to take care of business. Manager says, “What do you want? I’ll bring you back something.” The someone says, “Quarter pounder with cheese and a Sprite.” Takes out his wallet. Manager waves hand, says, “I’ve got it.” Smiles. Now THAT is a leader. I will never forget that.
  23. 23. Page 19 5. BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR WORDS We were steadfast in fighting the word “nonessential” to describe ANY employee, even if it was for a furlough. Nonessential today, and how will you keep them employed tomorrow? Even words intended to be descriptive can hurt very deeply.
  25. 25. Page 21 WikiLeaks and the Crisis of Government Communication* “Fewer than 3 in 10 Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007—the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years.” — Pew Research Center, Nov. 23, 2015 In the United States, federal government communicators have no shared professional standards of conduct, other than what they can piece together on their own. This was one of the key findings of a groundbreaking study conducted by the Federal Communicators Network in 2016—the first-ever survey of federal communicators by federal communicators. Out of 153 self-identified federal communicators who completed a small-scale survey administered by FCN: • 2 agreed “a great deal” with the assertion that “communication professionals’ roles and expectations are generally consistent across government.” • 27 strongly agreed that individual performance expectations are clear. • 136 disagreed that those expectations are appropriate. If expectations are unclear it’s because U.S. government information professionals utterly lack governmentwide standards and guidelines with which to do their jobs. This much became clear on diving into the confusing hodgepodge of research about what specifically it is that all federal information providers must do. While superficially one may think that “accountability,” “transparency,” and “no spin” cover it—in fact there are times when the government can use appropriated funds to communicate in a way that can be (and often is) perceived as propagandistic or wasteful. For example, the Smith Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 made it legal to distribute domestically U.S. government information intended for foreign audiences. While some decried the end of the “propaganda ban,” others saw it as a reasonable modernization of the law, given that the Internet makes traditional information segregation impossible. (One could of course ask whether traditional government propaganda should cease altogether, since it is no longer covert.)
  26. 26. Page 22 The U.S. government currently attempts to control for inappropriate communication using three distinct mechanisms: • Accountability: The Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act of 1982 requires agencies to implement internal controls, including management communication, as a way of making sure that federal funds are spent properly. • No Lobbying: The Anti-Lobbying Act of 1913, which was significantly updated in2002, prohibits the use of appropriated funds to try to persuade Congress to pass or not pass a law. • No Propaganda: “Employment of Publicity Experts,” Title 5 of the U.S. Code, Section 3107, originally dated 1913, states that “appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose.” This language appears in federal appropriations bills annually. Clearly this framework is not enough. Many have expressed concern about the extent to which taxpayer dollars are used inappropriately when it comes to federally sponsored communication: “NASA tweeting that Congress should give it more money, so our astronauts won’t have to ride on Russian rockets. reporting overly optimistic statistics on jobs saved and created by stimulus funds. The Department of Health and Human Service website encouraging the public to “state your support for health care reform” during the congressional debate over Obamacare. These are just some recent examples of the executive branch using our tax dollars to shape our opinions.” — The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2015 What happens when an agency goes too far? The Government Accountability Office launches an audit and issues a report, or Congress calls for research as agencies regularly do advertising, marketing and public relations. Right now, the government is trying to figure out why exactly agencies spent $893 million on advertising contracts in fiscal year 2013 and almost $4.7 billion in total during the prior five fiscal years. Research shows that 62 percent of the public has a positive view of federal employees. Considering that the public’s view of the federal government is at a record low, it makes sense to establish a professional code of conduct and clear goals and objectives across the board for
  27. 27. Page 23 federal communicators. That would enable us to stand as gatekeepers when our agency is about to do something ill-advised. In the U.K., such a code and a plan are already standard practice, and although the data are currently slim, one can reasonably assume there is a connection between communication and perceptions of integrity. For example, the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 ranks the U.S. beneath the U.K. when it comes to perceptions of integrity. While Britain is ranked among the top 10 performers in the world (tied for No. 10 with Germany and Luxembourg), the U.S. comes in lower (No. 16). This isn’t by any means the worst performance on the chart (North Korea and Somalia are tied at No. 167), but the numbers do tell a story. A fascinating dissertation by H.J.M. (Erna) Ruijer of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, offers some insight. It’s called “Proactive Transparency and Government Communication in the USA and the Netherlands” (2013). The author’s research yielded some important findings. First, she showed that while the Netherlands is characterized by “principles-based” government communication (e.g. “do the right thing”), the U.S. is “rules-based” (e.g. “follow the letter of the law”). It is noteworthy that the Netherlands is ranked among the Top 10 in the Transparency Index as well. In both countries, most communicators “valued proactive transparency highly and . . . were actively involved in implementing proactive transparency.” Additionally, communicators “contributed to making information more findable, relevant and understandable for its users.” However, on the negative side, in both countries, “communicators indicated they sometimes leave out important details, give only part of the story or specifically highlight the positive elements in the information.” Perhaps most significantly, Ruijer found that a healthy organizational environment was necessary for communicators to deliver real information and avoid propaganda and spin. She writes: “Communicators working in an organization that supports proactive transparency provide more substantial information, use less spin and are more inclined to solicit feedback and participation from stakeholders.”
  28. 28. Page 24 The fact that the public does not trust the federal government, but instead awaits release after release of leaked information from Wikileaks, is a very real crisis for the U.S. government. If you don’t believe me—after all, the political communication associated with an election is separate from the information world of the civil service—I certainly hear the objection. Factually speaking, most of the interest Wikileaks stirs up is no doubt “political.” Additionally, available data indicates that trust in individual agencies is high. But I would still argue that all of us—both political appointees and those in civil service—are nevertheless considered by the public as part of that hard-to-pin-down-or- understand-brand known as “Washington, D.C.” And sadly, the name of the city itself has developed a tainted connotation. This crisis can, at least in part, be resolved by turning to federal communicators already on the payroll. We may not have an impact on perceptions of American politics, but we can make a difference in the world of the civil service. So, equip us with the tools we need to ensure that federal government communication is reliable, and entrust us with the official role of gatekeeper. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Improving federal communication is a step in the right direction. We all benefit from increased clarity, proactive transparency, accountability, and public trust. * This essay was originally published in 2016.
  29. 29. Page 25 Why We’re Losing the Brand War Against ISIS* “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” ― Sun Tzu Defeating ISIS messaging should be a piece of cake — right? After all, everybody says “they’re a bunch of loony radicals.” How hard can it be to unmask them for what they are? But we are struggling. As The Washington Post reported (Dec. 2, 2015), a panel of private sector branding experts commissioned by the State Department to review anti-ISIS messaging did not come back with a positive report. According to one official quoted on background, the group “had serious questions about whether the U.S. government should be involved in overt messaging at all.” While the State Department has declined to release the actual report, The New York Times (June 12, 2015) reported receiving a “sensitive but unclassified” memo dated three days earlier from a source in the Obama administration. In it, Richard Stengel, undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, says bluntly: “The coalition [to fight ISIS through coordinated messaging] does not communicate well internally or externally.” From an external communication perspective, says Stengel, “our narrative is being trumped by ISIL’s. We are reactive — we think about ‘counter-narratives,’ not ‘our narrative.’” But it is worse than that. In a Gizmodo commentary on the Post story, Kate Knibbs tore into the government’s failed attempts to respond to ISIS messaging effectively: “Scrolling through the questions and answers [on, an anonymous Q&A website used by the State Department as one way of combating ISIS through social media] is an exercise in rapidly losing confidence in the governments’ ability to wage a propaganda war.” There’s no other way to put it: Surely we mean well, but the government is just so very uncool — so incredibly out of touch — when it comes to doing what it takes to fight ISIS and win. The first mistake we made was underestimating them. ISIS recruitment tactics, targeted both at young men and women, are working; they are experiencing “frighteningly rapid global growth,” despite President Obama famously calling them the “JV [junior varsity] team.”
  30. 30. Page 26 Their recruitment tactics are highly sophisticated, speaking the language of their targets, using the preferred communication methods of their audiences, telling them precisely what they want to hear. Boys are lured by the promise of sex; girls, ironically, are told that joining the group is akin to feminism. Just like any strong brand narrative, ISIS content represents messages that matter to the target, and that are extremely different from what they hear, at least in the Western mainstream. It isn’t just one thing, of course — there are dimensions of empowerment, of religion, of making the world a more just and less decadent place. ISIS also is the classic cult: offering a self-contained, secret world, initially appealing but with no chance of escape, to a population that frequently feels lost, alienated, and perpetually in transition. In a world where the choices can feel like a blizzard of dead ends, ISIS inserts itself as a ready-to-wear community with a winning path toward the future. They do not operate arbitrarily or off-the-cuff, either: ISIS has more than one playbook, each for specific ends, and they follow the strategy carefully. We’ve made a lot of other mistakes as well, some of which The Washington Post covers pretty comprehensively, especially here and here. They include: • Denying reality: underestimating the enemy, refusing to not only name the enemy but describe the nature of its identity, failing to talk about our role in creating the problem, overestimating our successes, delaying for a lengthy period of time to admit that we are at war. • Playing defense: failing to tell our story, over-focusing on the enemy’s tools of choice, insisting on explaining over and over again “why they’re wrong and we are right.” • Incompetence: “talking the brand talk” but failing to put expert communicators in charge; confusing the message with the medium; unrealistic ideas about metrics; overemphasizing logic versus emotion, or emphasizing the wrong emotional points; condescending to the audience.
  31. 31. Page 27 • Bureaucracy: Letting infighting derail the process, overemphasizing internal reactions, short-term thinking, delaying the formation of the team for a significant period of time, failing for too long to insist on staff and money from partners, failing to effectively leverage the national and international partners on the team. • Insularity: Refusing to bring in competent help from the outside for too long, failing to give the private sector the reins and invest in their expertise as needed. ISIS is a new kind of enemy, and it was inevitable that we would make mistakes in fighting them — yes, even significant ones. We can’t afford to look back and indulge in hand- wringing. It’s time to chart a new course. We begin at the beginning: In branding, as in war, constantly playing defense is a good way to get killed. This is because brand equity depends on constantly telling the consumer why they should pick you — not on telling them why they shouldn’t pick your competitors. By communicating proactively and positively with the customer, you develop the three key characteristics of a strong brand. This is the framework provided by top market research firm Millward Brown: • Salient: It’s top-of-mind when it’s time to buy. • Meaningful: It’s the most meaningful to you — you’re emotionally and intellectually attached to it. • Different: It’s the one that stands out as unique. Al Ries, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on branding, explained the importance of playing offense in Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. Not only that, said Ries, but the key to success is knowing your customers, knowing how they think, and shaping their perceptions. As he put it: “Positioning is not what you do to a product. It’s what you do to the mind of your prospect.” With that in mind, here is what we need to do right now: • Be honest: The enemy is not just a particular group. It is a brand that can loosely be described as “radical Islam.” Elements of this group are fundamental to Islam itself, albeit the nonviolent version. We must understand who we are dealing with and shut them down.
  32. 32. Page 28 • Play offense: There is a version of Islam that does not embrace elements that pose a threat. Many Muslims live their lives by this version. We need to immerse ourselves in their story, and combine it with the story of America, integrating the two in such a way that our nation evolves. What began as a “Christian nation” can no longer be described that way: We are a patchwork of religions and cultures and the story of that diversity is more compelling than an ideology of hate. • Competence: The government must hire, from within, professional communicators well-versed in branding — not just antiterrorism experts or Middle East subject matter experts. You shouldn’t drive a car unless you have a driver’s license. • Prioritize Efficiency and Effectiveness: Those of us who work in government are familiar with the ways bureaucracy thwarts success. The administration must act to eliminate the barriers faced by the State Department in its public diplomacy mission. • Controlled Openness: There is a balance to be struck here between the one extreme of insularity, and the other extreme of letting the private sector “take over.” The balance is achieved by having a government communicator oversee a large and diverse team, with a clear chain of command and well-defined roles and responsibilities. In his address to the nation on Dec. 6, President Obama assured us that we would ultimately defeat ISIS. Reassurances are nice, and I believe the news reports suggesting that the president is frustrated by our messaging failures thus far. But as they say, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” We can do a better job at this. We can render ISIS irrelevant. But if we’re going to do it, we need to go in strong, play hard and finish the job. Stengel is correct: The task is not about crafting a good “counter-narrative.” It is about giving the microphone to Muslims all over the world who seek to redefine Islam itself in the eyes of the world. In a sense, what's needed here is to rebrand a religion and our nation at the same time: Islam as peaceful, in the manner suggested by many prominent religious reformers, and the United States as inclusive and respectful of many faiths.
  33. 33. Page 29 We ought to invest in this. Branding is much more important to our security than fighting: It can save many lives and leave us with a lasting peace. Telling a better story isn't just about selling soap flakes. It can be about changing the world for the better. And when we embrace a better narrative — all of us, not just the USA — we will see an end to terrorism once and for all. *This essay was originally published in 2015.
  34. 34. Page 30 Law Enforcement and the Crisis of Public Confidence* “If You See Something, Say Something” is the most memorable public safety campaign I can think of. It began as a Homeland Security Department initiative but quickly branched out into a nationwide initiative at the federal, state and local levels and you can see the motto everywhere, particularly at public transportation hubs. Here’s a fun fact: the motto was originally rejected. As Mike Riggs reported several years ago in (citing an Adweek article from 2002), Korey Kay & Partners tried to get the federal government to adopt it after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Nobody was interested — not DHS, not the Justice and State departments. But eventually DHS did adopt it, and according to Riggs, in 2008 the line “went viral.” (The article offers an excellent timeline showing key moments in its adoption.) The question for students of law enforcement communication, and social media marketing, is whether the campaign has worked. The consensus is that it hasn’t: New York magazine writer Dwyer Gunn, citing the work of NYU sociologist Harvey Molotch, points to the detrimental effect of many “leads that are likely to amount to nothing.” For one thing, they make each individual lead less likely to be taken seriously. Overall, he notes, the program “hasn’t yielded any terrorists.” The New York Times in 2008 noted that the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) claimed it got 1,944 campaign-related tips in 2006. The result? “No terrorists were arrested, but a wide spectrum of other activity was reported.” called the campaign the creation of a “Massive Database of Useless Info from Citizens Spying On Each Other.” These commentators may be right; perhaps encouraging people to report on suspicious activities mucks up the system, distracts the feds and the police, creates unnecessary delays, and encourages an atmosphere of suspicion. But then again, perhaps the problem with the campaign was not the idea, but its execution. Terrorism is on the increase, not the decline, and we need all available information to fight it. In “Key Trends in the Uncertain Metrics of Terrorism,” published in 2016 by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Anthony H. Cordesman notes:
  35. 35. Page 31 “Virtually all of the data available indicate that these threats to the United States and its allies remain critical and that the geographic scope and intensity of terrorism continues to increase. At the same time, there are critical problems and shortfalls in the data available, a near total lack of credible unclassified data on the cost and effectiveness of various counterterrorism efforts, and critical problems in the ways the United States approaches terrorism.” In short, what Cordesman is saying is that we don’t know enough, we don’t measure well enough, and we don’t think smartly enough about how we fight the bad guys (and ladies). The public can and should play a huge role in supporting government efforts to fight terrorism. And despite the widespread criticism it has received, a glitzy ad campaign like “If You See Something, Say Something” can help. But — and this is a big but — by failing to report studiously on results, law enforcement leaves the public with the impression that this is a superficial campaign. It gets worse than that. While the public respects law enforcement, they have almost no trust in the institutions and individuals associated with politics and public service. So, while Gallup found in 2016, for example, that 76% of Americans have “a great deal of respect for the police.” they simultaneously learned that only: • 22% had “a great deal of trust and confidence” in the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches of government combined. • 8% had “a great deal of trust and confidence” in the Federal government’s handling of domestic problems; 11% said the same of international problems. • 7% have “a great deal of trust and confidence” in those “who either hold or are running for public office.” “If You See Something, Say Something” is a great idea. It’s a great concept. It’s a great ad and a great brand. But for a brand to work, its customers must see a promise being kept. Law enforcement should start to fulfill the promise of this campaign by focusing on its results. If they’re getting too many useless leads, they should help the public deliver more fruitful ones. And they should provide regular progress reports, in a coordinated way, that show how these improvements are yielding a true return on investment for the public. *This essay was originally published in 2017.
  36. 36. Page 32 5 Recommendations for Change-Makers Currently, there is no clear and consistently applied model for Federal communication standards outside what can be extracted from GAO reports. So how can professional public affairs specialists focus on doing more of the substantive work they are supposed to do, and less self-promotional stuff on behalf of the agency, regardless of their pay grade? 1. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF NATURAL INFLECTION POINTS Every four years, with the incoming transition team, there is an opportunity to provide a briefing on public affairs activities and priorities. These teams favor a smoothly running organization. Focus on demonstrating that communication activities are coherently organized, fall into the allowed categories, and are on track. 3. MEASURE, MEASURE, MEASURE Leaders rely heavily on summarized metrics reports, and you can devise ways of measuring the activities you’re engaging in as well as their results. Even a short one-pager consisting of the feedback you received from key stakeholders that week, delivered regularly, will help to focus them on activities that consistently receive positive feedback, which tend to be those that fall into the categories that are allowed. 4. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES Create written standard operating procedures for public affairs activities and refer consistently to them. You can use a SharePoint-type environment to treat these SOPs as a wiki, with continuous updates as needed. The point is to refer to something that is in writing as much as possible, rather than getting into differences of opinion. 4. KNOW WHERE TO GO WITH ETHICS CONCERNS Document activities undertaken clearly, consistently, and with tracking numbers so that decisions made are traceable to the responsible individual or group. If anything occurs that you
  37. 37. Page 33 have legal or ethics questions about, follow appropriate procedures to express your concerns, beginning with your supervisor. 5. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF TRAINING AND NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES When you attend training sessions, you not only gain the perspective of those who have addressed the same issues as you, but you also obtain the opportunity to discuss complex issues and concerns with your colleagues. NAGC, the Federal Communicators Network, and the General Services’ Administration’s Digital Gov Communities of Practice are all great options to start with.
  38. 38. Page 34 A Parting Thought The word “sacred” comes up a lot when Federal communicators talk about their duties, and this is not accidental. The meaning of this term is not only or even necessarily religious in nature; it has to do with performing a set of duties that are deeply respected for the weight they carry. When the Federal communicator says something, it affects not just one or two people, although that would be enough—but rather, millions and millions. As such, we must weigh our words carefully, take seriously what we say before we say it, and consider the impact on the people who will take those words at face value. Yes, Federal communication is a sacred duty, and our job first and foremost is to be responsible stewards of the public trust. That is a bedrock principle, it is nonpartisan, it stands separate and apart from the communicator’s personal life and beliefs, and it should never be a question in any civil servant’s mind.