Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why people don’t trust public affairs (and what we can do about it)

As someone who has watched so many public figures and respected organizations fall and fail after years and years of lying, I don’t trust official statements anymore. It’s a pretty sad thing and from what I can see on the Internet, it’s also a pretty common one.

At the same time, I have to confess that I consider myself a marketer. More specifically, I am a public affairs specialist working for the government, and in that capacity I have always advocated reaching out to the public in a way that is exciting, engaging, and that generates understanding, awareness of, and support for the mission. If we don’t do these things, the public will not know what to do when they encounter us, they will believe the falsehoods that are spread about us, and they will turn to alternative, less reliable sources of information to find out what they need to know about what we do.

So, unless G-d likes to play cosmic jokes, why does such a cynical person walk around in a spokesperson’s shoes?

I do believe that all occurrences in life have a purpose, and that every person has a unique mission in life that they are put on earth to carry out. And right now, I think my particular one is to help the government understand and respond effectively to a public that is cynical and even angry. Whatever your political leanings, you need look no farther than the raging town halls over health care reform this summer to see it. People on all sides of the spectrum are feeling completely fed up and they are looking to their leaders in Washington to “fix it” or get out of the way.

This leaves the government public affairs specialist needing to understand a few important things.

First, we no longer control the conversation, if we ever did at all. It is the public that is in control, and they are mostly informed by the media, the alternative/social media, and each other. They were talking to each other long before there were blogs and Tweets and social networking pages. They are predisposed to distrust us. And so we have to stop, immediately, stop, assuming that they will seek out our words, believe what we have to say, and follow along without question. More likely, they will find out our important announcements from a news story or something posted in a place that they happen to visit online. If we are lucky they will follow a link back to our website and we will have ONE CHANCE to get the message right. And if we talk in wooden, bureaucratic, overly complex, off putting government speak we will turn them away and convince them yet again that we are not a good source of information.

Second, our customer is the public. It is not senior leadership within the agency, it is not the operational offices within the agency, and it is not anybody else. We are holding the public’s money and it is our job to tell them what we did with it, with no spin or editorializing, in plain English, just the facts. This doesn’t stop us from marketing our existence and mission – otherwise we couldn’t even reach our customer – but we have to make a commitment to respond to the public’s concerns in a timely, comprehensive way. And a good public affairs specialist will be able to explain this to senior leadership within the agency, because it is ultimately our leaders who set direction for the offices as well as public affairs to follow. The demand for information comes from the customer, but the message to provide the information comes from the top. Everybody else follows in line when that instruction comes down.

Third, as much as possible, the public does not want to hear from public affairs specialists. The public wants to hear from employees within the organization who are extremely close to the subject matter at hand. This does not mean that employees should simply be released to blab about everything without training, but it does mean that the “face” of an agency is its frontline staff. Anybody else is seen as a distraction and a front person, and that detracts from an agency’s credibility.

Fourth, and finally, the new reality of marketing and public affairs alike is that you must be willing to make yourself look bad in order to look good. You cannot possibly be perfect, but that doesn’t mean you’re awful either. Just tell it like it is, objectively, and rationally, and your customers will trust you and remain loyal even in times of crisis – which are inevitable even in the best run agencies.

So: Recognize that the agency is just another participant in a conversation about them, talk about what the public wants to hear, tell the truth to the maximum extent possible (without revealing confidential information), tell it through an employee if possible, and tell it in plain English. And get leadership to support all this. That’s the new order of public affairs for a cynical public. I think people really do want to believe in government again. We just have to give them a reason.