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Shopping for the Truth

Everybody is fearful of losing their good image. This includes government agencies, politicians, businesses large and small, religious leaders, educators, and even individuals who have nothing to to sell or to lose. It is simply human nature that we all want to look good before our family, friends, stakeholders, customers, and so on.

Not only are people concerned about their own reputations, but they spend a fair amount of time looking into the reputations of the people they know and work with, the businesses they buy from, and the candidates they choose.

I don't know about other people, but personally, when I want to find out more about someone or something, the first place I head to is Google. I Google the name on the web, in the news, on the blogs, basically everywhere. And if I find too many negative stories, actually if I even find one negative mention, I start to get suspicious.

In fact, gauging other people's reputations is standard practice both online and in the real world. Before you buy a book on Amazon, you read the reviews and ratings. Before the federal government will hire you for many jobs, they do a “background investigation.” Even before people start dating, very often they will ask other people who know their prospective partner about what type of person he or she is really like.

And yet here is a fact that is absolutely stunning to me. The very same people who won't spend $9.99 on a cheap coffeepot without checking Consumer Reports - who have to check 25 movie reviews before they'll shell anything out for a ticket - who ask their best friends if they've tried a particular dish in the restaurant before they'll order it – these very same people, who are habitual reputation checkers of others, cannot seem to understand that they are continually being checked on by other people.

And furthermore, they can't understand that these reputation-checkers do exactly what they themselves do – they go shopping for the truth.

In other words, to put this in a government context, the public is not taking their cue from our highly crafted press releases, which are part of a set of approved materials that also contain talking points vetted by a cast of thousands.

Moreover, they're not waiting until we're ready to talk, or to issue a statement or a press release, until they form an opinion about us.

Instead, the public is going online right now. They are looking at Google News and Yahoo and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and CNN and whatever other source of information they and their friends deem trust worthy, including Twitter and Facebook. And the places they are looking to make their money by being first to report, first to explain, and the best at creating a social networking space where people can set the record straight for one another.

The public is not just going to general-interest sites either. They're going to any one of about a zillion sites, be them news or blogs, or some combination of the two, that specialize in exactly the subject they are interested in. In fact they don't even have to go to the sites anymore – the news comes to them via RSS.

Plus there is the unending steady stream of Tweets when something of importance happens. And the videos that people drop into YouTube on a dime, even if it's just a homemade video of them speaking to the camera, when the spirit moves them to talk.

All of this is happening, swirling around the consumer of news and information, and that person is surrounded by more choices than they know what to do with. From the minute they know how to use a computer, when they try to find what they are looking for in terms of an answer, a decision, a choice, or a guideline, they are shopping for the truth from a variety of sources.
This is just common sense.

Yet inside the agency, the corporation, the small business, whatever, there is some kind of communication virus afoot. And it seems to infect almost everyone who sets foot in the door, not only the clients or customers or operational offices but the communicators themselves. Those who are infected never seem to know it, but you can tell who they are. They say things that sound like:

“Stay on message.”
“Nobody is reading that blog.”
“That story is dead.”
“If we don't talk about it, it will blow over.”
“Why should we tell others bad things about ourselves?”
“The lawyers will never approve that.”
“Nobody will respect us if we speak in such common language.”
“I want that employee who (started the blog, created the Facebook group, etc.) disciplined.”
And so on.

In the infected person's mind, the following things are true:

1. The public is waiting to hear from them before they make up their mind
2. The public is not concerned about anything until the organization says something in public
3. If the media says something on Tuesday, the public has forgotten by Wednesday
4. If something is in a blog that “nobody respects,” nobody is reading it
5. If the organization makes something understandable, then it must be distorted, because real information is always very complicated
6. People who criticize the organization are the organization's enemies
7. The public will wade through whatever information the organization provides, no matter how complicated, convoluted, complex, and just plain impossible to understand it is.

I've had many conversations about how to cure this syndrome. But invariably I find that people fall into one of two camps: either they get it or they don't.

From a federal agency point of view, in an administration that is promoting full transparency, I don't think we can rely on the “infected” curing themselves any more. It's not a problem that is going to be solved by giving them social media tools – blogs and Tweets can be just as lopsided and self-promotional as press releases. Tweets do not transparency make.

And it's not a problem that is going to be solved by “confronting” the infected person or group with what critics are saying (unless it's on the front page of a major newspaper): Once you're inside the organization, inside the walls, there are just too many forces working together to stop someone from seeing and communicating what's going on in a timely, clear, objective, readable, and user-friendly way – the way the public wants.

If the Administration wants to ensure that federal agencies are fully transparent, I suggest that the government begin with the premise that the public is extremely sophisticated about seeking out information and is doing nothing less than shopping for the truth. We need to get away from the paradigm that says, “we are a monopoly and they have no choice but to listen,” and move toward the paradigm that says, “we are in essence selling a product/service and they have the choice to either buy what we're selling or demand an alternative.”

The truth of the matter is, we can't afford the luxury of acting like a monopoly. In today's world everybody, including the government, is a marketer. And while in the past marketers may have succeeded by saying their products were perfect, today the public won't support anyone who gives them less than the absolute truth.

We need to change and change quickly, recognizing that the public is shopping around for information, that they won't trust us unless we give them the whole story in a way that they can understand and appreciate, and that we ultimately will find our operational effectiveness stymied if we have lost even a fraction of our credibility.

The President took a huge step in this direction with the Open Government Directive of January 2009. It is great. But now, I suggest, is the time to implement it – using technology and every other tool at our disposal to increase the effectiveness of communication offices in federal agencies.

It's a different world out there today than it was ten, twenty, thirty years ago or more. And it will be even more different tomorrow. We can't afford to walk around with a communication virus. Our savvy customers, wireless-equipped Netbooks and iPhones and other smart gadgets in hand, are shopping for the truth. And they should be able to get what they are looking for - from us.