Unscripted

A lot of things went through my mind this week when I learned that the President had been taped calling singer Kanye West what kids would call “a bad name.”

The first thing I thought was – this seems like just another Internet hoax.

Then I thought, well maybe he said it, but maybe he said it in private and somebody leaked the comment to the press.

After that I found myself very curious about what exactly had happened. So I went to the website where the audio was posted and listened for myself. Sure enough, there it was, the President on tape, saying that Mr. West was out of line for praising the singer Beyonce, who did not win a video music award, while simultaneously presenting it to the winner, Taylor Swift. And then I heard him actually use the “J” word. (You can look it up if you don’t know what that is.)

Now, that tape could have been doctored. But it was true. As it turns out, the President had indeed said the word, but that part of the interview was not supposed to be on the record. Yet a reporter Tweeted it anyway, and it was gone into the frantically buzzing world of social media and soon the mainstream news. An apology from the news organization that let the Tweet out quickly ensued.

I took this all in and reflected on what had happened and what it all meant from a communications point of view. Judging from the prominence of the headlines this got, it was a big deal to people. Undoubtedly reactions varied. I personally was taken aback. But you know what? I wasn’t offended. To be honest, it was a moment of candor. And moments of candor from our leaders, perhaps because they must always be so careful what they say, are refreshing.

I’m not insinuating here that the President is less than candid. Or that he, or anyone else should make it a habit to use that kind of language in an interview. What I am saying is that from where I sit, the “J” word was an appropriate reaction given that the nation was so shocked and offended by what Mr. West did. And Mr. West himself knew it – so much so that he felt compelled to apologize to Ms. Swift not only once but several times and in public.

In that moment, with that word, the President showed humanity, honesty, empathy for Ms. Swift, and his choice of words made him “one of us” rather than “one of them”. The President could have said, “I believe that Mr. West’s words were inappropriate,” but you know what? There really is no other word that so precisely covers such rude behavior.

As the President - more than anyone, I think - knows, we are living in a time of tremendous turmoil and often ugliness, and this awards show was a chance to escape from it for just a few minutes. A national community was taking part in that show. And the hurtful comment just tore down the veil of fantasy and put us right back into an ugly place. Not to mention inflicting embarrassment on Ms. Swift on what should have been one of the happiest moments of her life.

What does this mean for government communicators advising senior leadership? Should we tell them to use slang, or curse? Of course not; that idea is just plain silly. Is every issue that simple, that a leader can just spit out a simple reaction in a few words that really explains the issue, where he or she stands, and why? Also, far from realistic. But this incident does point to the constant need to come up with strategies for leaders that will help them achieve the objective of speaking to their constituents in a way that helps them genuinely achieve their communication goals.

No matter how complicated the subject at hand, no matter how complex and multifaceted the issues are, no matter how technical the content or how sensitive it is, there is no point in communicating unless the audience actually gets the point.

To do anything else – to obfuscate the content in any way – not only confuses the audience and leads them to go to other sources of information, but it detracts from the relationship of trust that the leader seeks to build with their audience.

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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.

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