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Sunday, September 6, 2009

When It's Good To Be “Undignified”

If you are a federal government communicator, chances are you have either participated in or witnessed a conversation inside government walls that goes something like this:

Program Manager: OK everyone, we're here to talk about Initiative X. We really want to get the word out about it. Everyone needs to know how important Initiative X is.

Communicator: That sounds exciting! There are lots of things we can do to get your message out.

Program Manager: Can you give me some examples?

Communicator: We can create a brochure, a web story, an article in the employee newsletter, posters, things like that.

Program Manager: That's all fine, but what can we do to really stand out?

Communicator: Well if you really want to get “out there,” we can do a social media campaign, blogs, Tweets, maybe even a Facebook page if the lawyers will approve...we can go out on the message boards and talk to people, really get to citizens where they live.

Program Manager: Hmmm. I don't know. A blog? That sounds undignified.

Communicator: If you want to stand out from the crowd, it's a communication best practice nowadays.

Program Manager: Let me think about it. We are the government, after all. We are not supposed to communicate like that. Let's stick with something more traditional.

I wish I could say that this conversation is an aberration. But I would be less than truthful if I said that. Unfortunately, the belief that government communication ought to be “dignified” has led to a horrendous tendency to make it as complex, long-winded, self-serving, and full of jargon as possible.

I am tempted to give examples why bother highlighting any one agency? Plus if you are a communicator in government I don't think you need any anyway.

What would happen if government communications were routinely, consistently, and without fail conducted in simple, direct, plain English?

And even crossed the line into occasional humor, dry wit, sarcasm, or dare I say cuteness?

What if government communications acknowledged public criticism directly?

What if we even admitted that we make mistakes at times?

What if we could say things like:

“The rules are soon going to change and if you don't listen, you will be fined a penalty.”

“We had a lot of fun writing this regulation because it's going to make our job a heck of a lot easier.”

“We know people really dislike this policy, but we're not going to change it, because without it we can't do our job.”

“Nobody felt like taking a 2-hour drive to do the emergency planning exercise, but it was worth it because we learned a lot.”

“We admit that the supervisor did a stupid thing by telling the employee to do X, but it's not the most heinous crime in the world. Plus, although we can't tell you exactly what we do in cases like this, the supervisor is being disciplined for it.”

“We invite you to send us a video with suggestions about how to improve our agency. Suitable for family viewing please.”

In other words, what if government communications actually became real, fun, human? And we decided to speak in a way that the public can actually hear us?

Some people say that we'll lose our dignity.

I say that we'll finally overcome our reputation for being lesser folk than our counterparts in private industry. We'll stop looking like out-of-touch buffoons and gain the respect of the public which understands that speaking in real language is actually a lot more intelligent and dignified than trying to hide behind a wall of opacity. And right now that wall is so thick that the good efforts of our dedicated public servants are lost because the public perceives that they don't want to talk openly about what they are doing.

Silence is not the answer. Jargon is not the answer. Long sentences and self promotion are not the answer. Let's stop talking to ourselves in a haze of groupthink and fear and start having real conversations about who the customer is (the public) what they want and need to hear (the truth) and how we need to say it so that they really get the message (any method of communication that works).

This isn't a social media issue. It's a fundamental communication issue. It's just that blogs and Tweets and Facebook and the like have ripped the lid off decades of complacency and even arrogance. We might get hit for making some mistakes, but we're going to get hit anyway because mistakes have a way of coming out regardless. The public will support us if we do our best for them. Nobody has patience for the old way of doing things anymore, and we're going to have to change anyway. Might as well do it now as later – all it takes is the guts to try.