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10 Reasons Why Communicators Avoid Technology

A lot of the time we run the other way, even if technology can make our lives easier and better.

Here's why:

  1. Comfort with the traditional way of doing things
  2. Fear of loss of power to those who are better informed
  3. Fear of losing status if the technology doesn't work out well
  4. Perception that it’s a “waste of time” or “we tried that before and it failed”
  5. Mistrust of solutions that depend on sharing information with others
  6. Benefit not clear (because most technologists have trouble marketing their solutions)
  7. High cost - perceived or actual
  8. Hassle to use - perceived or actual
  9. Stubborn resistance - due to bureaucracy, culture, or scared people (see above)
  10. Shortsightedness - refusal to fund training or technologies that don't solve an immediate problem

With all this stuff going on, is it any wonder we wait for a crisis to change? I totally sympathize.

Nevertheless, if you are a communicator who is avoiding technology, do a 180 as fast as you can. Technology is here to stay - and those who ignore it are ignoring an asteroid that has already hit.

10 Technology-Driven Ways to Increase Your Communication Staff's Efficiency

The aversion that most people have to technology creates a big advantage for those who are willing to try new things, even if they flounder or even fail the first time.

Be smart: Get ahead of the curve and adopt the kinds of technologies that can help your productivity (read: bottom line) skyrocket.

Here are just a few:

  1. Share information electronically: Stop "meeting madness" - it is expensive and draining; most people hate meetings anyway. Save the talk for brainstorming, teambuilding, or other activities that require face-to-face interaction.
  2. Convert from email to alerting: People are drowning in email. Put your messages on the Web (internal or external) and let your readers find them by following an automatically generated alert. Use metrics of clicks to measure interest and engagement – which email doesn’t offer by default. Plus the content will stay there, hopefully well-categorized, for easy reference later on.
  3. Edit documents by wiki: Shared document editing by wiki rather than email (I send you the attachment, you send me the attachment, we can’t remember whose attachment is latest) or, heaven help us, trying to read someone’s handwriting. Unless you really need document tracking, it’s a simple solution to what can be a very time-consuming process.
  4. Transition from private to shared workspaces: If your best employee were to leave the organization tomorrow, would you be able to figure out what the heck they had on their computers or why it was important? Change the cultural expectation so that work is done on a project basis rather than a personal basis. By working this way, documents will be labeled consistently, stored in an accessible manner, and a version history will be kept to protect against data loss. Think about how long it can take you to write a single critical email and you will recognize the importance of this step, even if it is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and you encounter resistance from the team.
  5. Use project management software rather than homemade tracking solutions: Are you still thinking that you can keep it all “in your head”? Afraid that by committing things to a system you will lose control? That you can’t learn a new solution because Microsoft Project is so complicated? Or perhaps you still send those back-and-forth emails? For everyone’s sake, especially yours, do yourself a favor and make the move now to something more professional. I pilot-tested Zoho and liked it a lot, but it’s a bit marketplace out there and you should be able to find something that works. (It’s also good to hire a Project Management Professional if you can, someone trained in the technical, systemic and organizational aspects of project management.)
  6. Invest in a document management system: After the project is complete and the team members are off the shared workspace, who retires the documents and makes sure they’re searchable by the next person? If you don’t invest in a cataloguing solution for the knowledge you’ve already produced, chances are you’ll have another team try to produce it again in the not-too-distant future.
  7. Convert to digital signatures from ink: I know, I know, ink is so pretty and it makes such nice swirly curls when you use it. It feels good to sign your name to approve a finished product. But you know what? Digital signatures are just as nice, in a different way: They save you from having to chase people down for matters that can just as easily benefit from a digital signing. Plus, let’s face it – most of what we do doesn’t exactly rank up there with the Constitution of the United States in importance. If a lease can be signed electronically, so can printer proofs.
  8. Learn the magical wonders of workflow management: Isn’t it fun to take a single piece of paper from floor to floor, scanner to fax machine, carrying it from person to person till it has all the signatures it needs to go out? Or how about tasks that have to flow from Person A to B to C and then back to A – isn’t it awesome when you have to chase each of those people down, or when you are one of them and aren’t sure if it’s your turn to edit the thing or if you have to wait for the subject matter expert first? This is the great contribution that workflow management makes to our lives. It’s the end of papers flying all over the place. The end of “who’s on first.” Finally we can relax until it’s our turn to pick up the baton.
  9. Get social – it’s free: There are so many social media solutions that already benefit from government participation. Use them to multiply the force of your outreach efforts: For example, take your photos and put them on your website, then Flickr, government photo collections, or anywhere it can be used by the public. Same with presentations to Slideshare. Documents to Scribd. Whatever tool makes sense, is approved, and you can use – use it.
  10. Become template-driven: The single best investment you can make in your brand is to develop a toolkit, posted in an accessible way for employees, that enables them to self-produce presentations, brochures, posters and fliers. Save your design and content communicators from getting into opinionated discussions over new names, new icons, new fonts, and so on, when using the brand usually benefits the organization more. Just make sure the brand is diverse enough to address most communication needs, and train and empower staff to use it. (This will engage them with it more, as well.) Invest the department’s resources in more complex jobs that call for a branding professionals’ judgment.

Don’t wait for inefficiency to sink your operation. Take action today – and ask your employees to come up with even better solutions for the next go-round.

Good luck!

I Need a Better Job Title

Technically I am a “public affairs specialist” working for an agency in the federal government (all opinions my own of course). This is the default.


But I really, really, really think we need a more accurate and meaningful job title for this area of specialization.


For one thing it’s not intuitive what “public affairs” means. 


I try to say to myself that “public affairs” is supposed to distinguish things that have something to do with the public. Versus things that don’t have anything to do with the public. But when it comes to government, exactly what would be outside the public sphere?


So then we get to the concept that “public affairs” is like the government term for “public relations.” I think we use a different term because


1) we’re not supposed to have PR people, because PR has a bad reputation as your hired gun-liar, and appropriated funds cannot be used for propaganda to domestic audiences


2) we in the government like to think that everything we do is incredibly unique to government and could not possibly be compared to what goes on in the private sphere.


Al-righty then. So how come we’re not all “public information officers?”


The answer to that one is that while some of us do indeed provide information – answering questions like “does this law or rule apply to me?” and “how can I complain about the way I was treated?” not all of us do that.


Many of us, if not most, connect people inside the agency to the media. These professionals generally have the term “press officer” or “media relations” attached to their title. They’re not exactly pure information providers because often they have to explain the “why” of an agency action, program or policy.


Once you get into the “why,” you have left the realm of fact and entered the realm of public relations. Which is where we didn’t want to be, if you recall. Or, where we think we don’t want to be.


Some government communicators are titled with a term like “public engagement.” As in, “we engage the public with our mission.” That’s not bad. We get people interested, excited, motivated about who we are and what we do. That helps us build a relationship with them so that they obey the law. So that they know where to turn for information. See “public information officers.”


Still others work in the realm of “outreach.” Which is another way of saying “marketing.” Except we don’t like to say marketing because again, that sounds like we’re propagandistically selling something. Like soap or soda. Except we’re not. We’re trying to sell people, usually, on a socially desirable behavior like washing your hands frequently so that you don’t get sick. Or we’re trying to convince them that complying with a new really won’t be all that bad. Like public engagement except it’s narrower and focused on a specific campaign.


There are “web content managers” among us as well. Which makes it sound like they have no say over the content. They usually don’t. They should have more.


“New media lead” isn’t that bad. That title is about finding and implementing emerging communication technologies to help us get the word out better, faster, cheaper. And using social media. Which is critical and still very underused (to put it mildly).


And of course there are always writers. Or as we like to call them, “writer-editors,” as if we have to add the term “editor” to the job description just in case the writer refuses to edit on the grounds they weren’t hired to do that.


My title right now is a little jumbled. “Marketing Consultant (Internal) and New Media Marketing Lead.” Or something like that.


I truly, truly dislike titles. I don’t think that one does me justice.


What I really am, in this job, is marketing strategy and outreach specialist. That doesn’t sound too bad.


But the vast majority of government communicators are, in my opinion, either public information officers (pure information) or public relations specialists (representing the why of agency actions, programs, or policies). PR isn’t lying – that’s just the stigma that’s been slapped on it over the years.


You know what? If you really think about it…you could actually boil down everything to public relations. PR people provide pure information, explain the “why,” build relationships, engage the public and employees, use new technologies, market socially responsible campaigns, and write their heads off.


You may think this is unimportant but I think it’s critical. An accurate description of your work also demonstrates your value.


I think we are PR people.


What do you think?


What should a government communicator’s default title be?

Social media, broadcast media, Web – the future of government communication

This blog started as a tweet basically asserting that the future of government communication is where the people are: social media, broadcast media, and Web. That good old boy print is as good as dead.


The tweet was pretty self-explanatory and I would have left it there, except some people seemed interested enough to retweet it. There was also a reply from Kristy Fifelski, who I know from the Gov 2.0 community, about the digital divide. How would this prediction square with the fact that most people aren’t yet online?


In the interest of starting a conversation, here are some very initial thoughts, based on my own experience and observation over the years.


1.     Accessibility compliance doesn’t equate to a better-informed public. It just means that you’re following legal requirements.


2.     Great communication strategy goes beyond the letter of the law to determine how people really get information and to get it to them that way.


3.     People don’t read, unless they’re bored on the train or doing research or their name is in the article.


4.     Here is what people do. They go on Facebook first thing in the morning. Check email but only briefly because they get so much. They text. They talk on the phone. They look at screens in the mall and the elevator. They look things up on mobile devices. They pass electronic billboards. They email news clips to each other with important information. They look at photos. They go on Facebook. They Tweet and retweet. They look at viral YouTube clips.


5.     They watch TV, sometimes. If it’s entertaining.


6.     People go out to eat.


7.     People don’t understand what the heck the government is doing.


8.     People don’t care what the government is doing.


9.     People are predisposed to think the government is doing a bad job because we’re a convenient enemy.


10.  There are more than 70 homeless organizations in Washington DC alone and times are tight. Ending the printing of vanity print publications, especially when regular newspapers can’t make a living in print, is a good way for government communicators to show that they are tightening their belts.


Right now government communications is playing catchup when it comes to communication. We are trying to evolve, in a way, but it’s not fast enough for our many audiences and the fact of the matter is we’re out of money and time. Nobody has patience for excess spending anymore.


Neither is it good enough to throw things up on the web (throw up, it sometimes seems like) and think our job is done. It’s not done. That is not “accessibility.” Neither is providing a snail mail address to request information.


What is good enough? Go to the nation’s public schools and libraries and set up shop. Create virtual games with the “government experience” (divided per agency) and let people interact with us there.


To say that the customer can’t use technology is an excuse. It is we who can’t use technology. And the substitution of long, wordy Word documents for actual communication, communication that is heard and understood and processed, is not going to work anymore.


In the past government communication was about sharing with the public content that had been through the process of vetting and was deemed ready to view. In the future it’s going to be a completely different picture. Our content will be public by default. There will be a sea of information out there and nobody will be able to control it. Nor will we be able to control the conversation.


The predictions in the Cluetrain Manifesto are coming true. We in government communication have an opportunity now to jump onboard and get aligned with the customer. We just have to lose our deep-seated fears – that we will make mistakes, show our lack of knowledge, or become irrelevant. We absolutely are going to do all of those things. But if we step out now, with grace and dignity and asking the public for feedback and forgiveness as we learn, then we will build great relationships as we move forward together.


In the end social media is about those relationships. It’s about great customer service. Listening to the people. Not about technology X or Y or Z, all of which are transitory. Let’s take the principles of great communication and bring them to those who need them the most. That is the true meaning of accessibility.

What JC Penney knows that Lowe's doesn't

What a difference between these two stores.

I hope they rebrand "JCPenney" as "Penney's" or "JCP" or something like that. Because this store is so different from what it used to be that it's literally unrecognizable.

Someone should highlight and brand its transformation to an affordable yet upscale, modern retail emporium.

Change the logo. You've earned it.

When I walk into JC Penney I instantly am greeted by everything right:

1. The store is spacious, well-lit, well-organized and clean

2. Sales staff are courteous and helpful

3. They've created their own mini-brands, in mini-boutiques, within the store, close together - good for the easily distracted shopper

4. It has Sephora

5. The mini-boutiques' brands are separate yet relate to each other in a meaningful, consistent way

6. Sephora

7. The items are true to a core "brand promise" - affordable quality

8. It's fun to shop there no matter who you are

9. No annoying music

10. Sales are "doorbusters," which sounds fun

11. Sephora

JC Penney is doing such a good job that even I am convinced, and I am snotty about places with a reputation for being "junk stores." It's not, anymore.

On the other hand, Lowe's has completely messed up its brand.

What happened? It's become a complete mess.

Quick story to illustrate:

The other day we needed to replace a piece of hardware in our home. We could have gone to Home Depot, which is not far.

Yet the power of Lowe's brand in terms of having a higher quality of this type of thing, and more selection, was such that we automatically decided to head over there.

Despite the fact that we didn't know how to go there.

So we "shlepped" through unfamiliar terrain, over roads we didn't know existed, through nauseous traffic....well, you get the idea.

But we did it willingly because we were sure that once we got to Lowe's our problem would be solved.

Boy were we wrong!

The minute we pulled up to the store it was bad.

Outside there was a haphazardly arranged display of plants.

Not to mention that the store sign looked dirty.

Inside we were confronted by...nothing.

Look left and there were immense rows and aisles and signage. Like Home Depot, except worse.

The ceilings were like 100 feet high, and the signs were way up there. I had no idea where anything was, and the signs didn't help. I "know" my own Home Depot, but still - this was ridiculous.

There were no salespeople. Nobody offered to help. Home Depot has Lowe's beat on this. There are armies of salespeople to help you at Home Depot.

Finally we find what we are looking for but it's in two separate aisles.

The first aisle has products from one or two manufacturers, and that's it. Not much choice at all.

The second one has a big display, but maybe only two or three second-rate choices of product.

Certain people in our visiting party are ready to leave more or less immediately. Enough time wasted. They are not happy.

I am sort of the opposite, stubbornly insisting that we make something out of the trip. I am not happy.

We are not happy.

Stubborn me walks around and around looking for help, an alternative, a solution so that we don't have to walk out of this store empty-handed.

No help to be found. I see cashiers somewhere in the vastness.

It's such a bad experience that we end up at the clearance washer-dryer section, looking at the set colored a jazzy red. Wishing we were there to buy a washer-dryer.

We linger looking at the flashlights for a minute. Do we need a new flashlight?

No. We shake our heads sadly. And walk out. Really annoyed.

Not happy campers, us.

Retailers must understand that the customer has a choice. We could simply buy everything online, in bulk, and call it a day. We go to a store for a positive sensory experience. It's not just a need, it's an activity that fulfills a need. Fun. Something to do.

Retailers must understand that it's a bad economy. If we're shopping, it's something we have to justify. They must cater to our different needs and shopping styles. They must know the customer.

They don't.

Lowe's has lost its way.

JC Penney has found it.

Lowe's could learn a lot from JC Penney.