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Sunday, December 11, 2016

#CIACoup Is A Wake-Up Call

As a federal communicator--and as always I speak only for myself here, not my agency, or any government entity, or the government as a whole--it is deeply troubling to launch one's Twitter feed and see the hashtag #CIACoup.

The hashtag represents a belief that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency will somehow try to stop President-elect Trump from being inaugurated.

To be blunt about it, there is no evidence to suggest that this accusation has any basis in fact. Yes, the U.S. government is going to investigate whether Russia tried to influence our election, but President Obama has already said he accepts the results. And yes, as part of its budget, the government will pay to stop foreign disinformation campaigns and also to discredit and dismantle terrorist networks.

Guess what, we're also using technology to scan social media networks for threats, as well as to mine the "dark web" to catch pedophiles and other criminals.
The problem I have is that the government does not adequately explain these actions, and many others, in a way that people can understand. Moreover, the government does not regularly make the case for such actions, does not provide data that can be independently verified, and does not engage with deeply dissenting parties on the pop culture platforms where people congregate.

As a result, people impute their own meaning to whatever facts they can find. And as this hashtag shows, some have reached an incredibly dangerous conclusion from the perspective of not only trust in the government (which is already at a record low) but also public safety.

Now, we all know that politics is a dirty game and countless TV shows make drama of political corruption in DC: "Designated Survivor," "Scandal," "Shooter," "House of Cards," and so on. (Bureaucratic corruption, e.g. fraud, waste and abuse, is more difficult to portray and we tend to see less of it dramatized on TV and more of it reported in the newspaper.)

Whatever its form and wherever it happens, corruption is inherently deviation from the established rule of law. Even in the case of corrupt states, e.g. dictatorships, one normally finds that the citizens perceive their current legal framework as abnormal. Even if they do not have the power to affect change, people know the difference between a state accountable to the rule of law, and a state where there is no such thing.

Having spent many years working as a communicator for the government, I understand that the bureaucracy is loathe to stir up any more controversy than already exists. I understand that a policy of silence, or an attempt to refocus the public on other subjects, is also the norm. But these attitudes, which may have been useful half a century ago, are completely wrong today and even counterproductive.

In a world where communication is dominated by social media, official silence on matters of public concern is in effect an admission of guilt. That in turn creates the perception that the government cannot be trusted, and the result is a domino effect of rumor, gossip, misinformation that can have disastrous consequences.

Particularly in a time of political turbulence, in a time when we seem to be talking past each other more than talking with each other, government communication must be proactive. At this time, federal communicators should be out there providing real, clear, substantive and verifiable information; dispelling myths and rumors; and generally helping to allay fear and anxiety through the rational application of evidence.

I remember years ago after 9/11, when I joined U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the public wanted us to check every single cargo container incoming to the ports for weapons of mass destruction. We knew that people were terrified, and in response we issued official communication that explained why we couldn't do that, but what steps we were taking instead.

That kind of straightforward approach--we did not shy away from the facts or the complexity of the matter--was incredibly effective.

Why can we not respond to public concerns in a transparent, honest, evenhanded way--all the time, 24/7, across the board?

It seems to me that building trust with the public is the most vital function the government has. Without trust you have nothing.

Federal communicators are also private citizens. We live in the real world. And as a private citizen I know how vital it is that people be free to express their views, concerns, and yes, even suspicions of the government. In turn, the government should be responsive and open.

Even when the government cannot answer a question, as the communications guru Shel Holtz once said, it is absolutely acceptable to say "we cannot comment at this time" or "that information is privileged, we just cannot tell you."

But to totally ignore what people are saying, with the justification that "we don't want to dignify such comments with a response," or any other excuse, is in my professional view not helpful.

We could take a cue from Amazon.com, where it's easy to reach a customer service professional, and no question is too stupid or unworthy to receive a meaningful response, or to be escalated to level after level of management. Ultimately the customer always walks away either satisfied with the response, or unsatisfied but in possession of a clearly articulated reason why they cannot get the result they want.

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All opinions my own. Photo by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay.