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Rethinking The Typical Office of Public Affairs (Updated Jan. 27 2013)

Download from Slideshare here, or see below. It's pretty self-explanatory, given my general approach to communications, but please ask me any questions you might have. Obviously the main difference is the word "engagement" - it's all about the interaction. - Dannielle Blumenthal

Looking at this you might be thinking - what do we do with the Web? 
I envision that it would become part of an interagency portal, much like
The portal is an IT function and thus would be administered by the Federal Chief Information Officer. Each agency would be deputized to contribute to this portal. 
Generally each individual agency public engagement function would answer to or be part of a larger interagency task force, group or committee - whether it's FOIA, social media, media relations, writing and so on. This is the concept of shared services as applied to citizen communications as well as the concept of a customer-centric organization organized from the outside-in.
The Amazon storefront is an example of a portal that pools individual vendors who retain control over their presence into a highly customer-centric virtual storefront. (In the real world it is akin to a mall storefront.) The vendors cooperate with Amazon's standards to be there, but are individual presences as well.
The first thing you see on the Amazon portal is a search bar. You can search any "department" you want. In the government's case you could search any agency or subagency (you could mouse-over the agency and have the sub-agency be a set of choices within it - similar to USAJobs).
Of course every Agency is concerned that it have an opportunity to tell its story its way. Which is why each would get an Amazon-style "storefront."
Finally of course there is the "help" function, which would be an interagency function. That way if I ask a question I don't have to think about which Agency would answer it. It's the job of the individual Agency help desk to participate in the system and ensure a response.

The Missing Discipline - The Missing Mother

                                                                               Remember that movie "Not Without My Daughter" with Sally Field?

A long time ago, in a smallish apartment on the Upper West Side of New York, I shared an apartment with a noted psychologist who did couples counseling.

It was curious to me how a noted psychologist getting a divorce could do couples counseling. But then again I am not always clear when I communicate. And my profession is to help other people do this very same thing.

So perhaps we spend our lives in the dogged pursuit of excellence in what we're bad at.

In relation to this, let's talk about corporate communicators for a bit. Because we're trained to actually write things, get feedback on things, strategize and measure. Yet we spend too much time playing a role we aren't trained for and that is outside our scope to carry out - that of organizational development (OD) specialist.

This is the missing discipline in most organizations. One that is not covered by communication, or human resources, or training. It is organizational development as a discipline that performs the mothering function analogous to what takes place in families. The OD expert helps explain outside logic to people on the inside - creates a safe emotional space to heal and adjust to reality - so that the communication and every other function can proceed.

OD as a discipline reminds me of my Grandma. She was fabulous for so many reasons. Most of my memories involve talking to her while she made food. There was Grandma frying noodle kugel in a cast iron pan. Chopping vegetables for soup. Grinding liver in the big metal grinder, with eggs (so gross, right? Delicious!) Grandma made chulent with meat bones so big the entire family fought to be the lucky one to grab it. We looked like the Flintstones fighting for those bones. She used to make a variation on Wishbone salad dressing, and to this day I've never had anything so good.

Grandma was the one we ran to when we made the trip upstate. She stood there at the top of her rickety brick steps. Hands on her hips and polyester pants and her trademark dimpled smile. "Grandma, Grandma!" we used to yell as we flung the car door open and ran to her.

Grandma was a mother to all of us, to her children and her grandchildren. And we did not need another when she was around. Her children - my mother and her sisters and brothers - they went to the city to learn a trade and earn money at a very young age. There was no funding to support them. With that generation the concept of a full-time, stay-at-home mom who had nothing to do but mother - well that died.

This is not a diatribe about how sad it is that women work. Not at all. Believe me. And I am well aware that for many women, sitting at home and watching the kids was a luxury they never, ever had. But still - there was a concept of full-time mothering, as a job, that was respected at one time. And when that went away I do think something was lost. The daycare generation never had that mother figure, who had nothing better to do than simply take care of them.

Today we work in the modern organization. Which as always is emotionally vacant - neutral - "professional." But the pain of that Switzerland-like neutrality is worse because there is no Grandma, or mother, sitting at home waiting to put a Band-Aid on your knee. That uncritical empathic listener who only exists to give you a hug.

It is politically correct to say that mothers should pursue their dreams, belong at work, and are actually better at parenting when they're occupied outside the home. Plus we need the money. But at the end of the day the truth is not so simple. The mothering function - whether it's performed by women or men - is completely irreplaceable. And it hasn't yet been replaced by an equivalent function at work.

We communicators feel this as we go about the business of the day. We want and need to focus on conveying information. But the basis of this function is a certain emotional centredness. There must be a person or department hired by the organization whose entire job it is to be the mother - to help the organization adjust and cope with the events of the day. (If you recall "Star Trek: The Next Generation" - this would be Deanna the ship psychologist.)

You may tell me that internal communications fulfills this role. Or that people can see the EAP (employee assistance program) staff when they're troubled. But that's not what I'm talking about.

In order for any corporate communication to be effective, there has to be a more foundational level of communication that engages employees at the emotional level, to hear their concerns and provide a safe place for collective feeling, celebration and even grieving. That is the missing discipline we need - the capacity we should foster - and the OD function very much fits the bill.

"Social Media Is A Waste Of Money" - What To Say

The role is really citizen engagement and the set of tools includes social media. 

Done properly you are building the infrastructure - culture of openness, accessible tools, and policy - to enable everyone and anyone to engage. 

I too have seen wasteful spending on flashy outreach with dubious results. But a lot of executives like that. They think glossy billboards means we did something. They can be argued down from that particular tree. 

But the real task is to help leaders see who they need to engage, segment these publics into target audiences with a high level goal for each, and empower organizational ambassadors accordingly. 

As far as cost, it is minimal:

  • You can get an army of ordinary frontline employees to proselytize on Facebook just by giving them permission. Cost - $0. 
  • You can train anyone to do a rotation at the customer service chat desk. Cost - in-house training and time away from regular duties. 
  • You can also empower subject matter experts to talk about complex and controversial issues affecting the agency from their own perspective - not representing the agency. You have to trust your people and let them disagree sometimes though. Cost - $0. Impact huge. 

The risk we are taking is not so much financial as cultural:

  • How much do we trust our people? 
  • How educated are they about the mission? 
  • How well does information flow internally and from the outside in? 

Yet investing in the above is not an option, but a requirement. They are capacities we MUST build in order for our organizations to survive. They are the basis of engagement. 

When it comes to government or any social institution, the public will not accept a bunch of bobbleheads swaying to the latest propagandistic tune. They want facts, they want access, they want something true and beautiful to believe in. 

We can't afford to deliver anything less.

All opinions my own.

The Doppelganger

This is Lena Dunham, the creative genius behind HBO's hit TV show "Girls."

Screenshot via Business Insider"How Lena Dunham Went From Unknown Filmmaker To TV Star In Less Than A Year"

This is my niece Yaffa.

Screenshot via The Billfold, "Setting The Record Straight"

Yaffa and Lena are both writers, both Jewish, both in their twenties, both New Yorkers, and both love food.

I had no idea who Lena was when I read the following in Yaffa's blog, "Living on a Latte and a Prayer," August 8, 2012:
I had the fortune of meeting a Nora Ephron disciple, a.k.a. my doppleganger, a.k.a. Lena Dunham there a few short weeks ago, and well, cliche as it may be, my life has never been the same.
And then for some reason I decided to buy the first season of "Girls" on HBO, because there was just nothing to watch on TV.

As I watched I could not watch. Because there was Yaffa, my niece. No it was Lena. They didn't just look alike. They were freakishly alike. So I tweeted, on Jan. 15:

At the time I did not know that an article had appeared on Jan. 13 in the New York Times, "The Unaffordable Luxury of Food," in which Yaffa had been interviewed. Supposedly it was about what it's like to be a footloose and fancy-free millennial in New York who likes food.

If you read between the lines though it was not just a profile but rather a pretty nasty slam at the "Girls" generation, using Yaffa as the stand-in for Lena. Writes Ginia Bellafante:
Every generation of young New Yorker finds its own way to squander its meager earnings, and this one seems content to spend the money it makes on expensive, curated food with little sense that it is really squandering anything at all.
I happened upon the article by stumbling upon Newsle, which tracks your friends' mentions in the news (I just started browsing it, so not totally clear to me yet.)

Newsle actually took me to Yaffa's rebuttal of the piece, which appeared in Billfold, an online magazine. There, she breaks down her spending bit by bit, demonstrating clearly what I knew all along about her: There is probably no twentysomething on this earth more responsible than Yaffa. Who works not one, not two, but three jobs to pay her own way.

(And if you have ever spent any time in New York you know that food is extremely expensive. Even a bottle of water runs you $2.50.)

I thought Yaffa's strategy was totally brilliant. Not only did she turn around a seemingly negative story, but this relatively unknown young woman managed to make the Times look foolish, petty and irrelevant.

Here are some of the Tweets that came out in support of Yaffa after the article ran:

The bottom line lessons for me from this whole thing:

1. When you're young, it's better to be notorious than unknown.

2. The moment you're under the microscope is the best time to turn it around into a spotlight.

3. The best way to defend yourself is simply to lay out the facts wholesale.

4. There is a certain advantage to playing David against the Goliath.

5. It is entirely possible to become famous for something completely irrelevant and accidental as versus your own hard work and uniqueness.

Congrats to Yaffa for a job well done - she really taught me something with this one.

Never Abandon Social Media (Just The Opposite)

The following is adapted from a comment I made on in response to the question of whether an organization should cease its social media activity due to a lack of interest among the public.

Don't walk away from social media. Lack of response just means the organization is implementing it in a way that misses the target.
What people want from organizations, government specifically is as follows:
1) To gain benefit - e.g. be connected to the services they are paying for with their tax dollars
2) To not get in trouble - e.g. be informed as to how to follow law and regulation administered by that agency
3) To have a voice - e.g. to be able to influence what the agency does or at least be heard
The best way to address all of the above is social media, supported by a platform that makes pure data easily accessible (e.g. Open Government) and mashable - no bells and whistles.
This is why the function of public affairs is obsolete and should be morphed to social media completely.
The CIO can handle the rest, which is simply open data.
The Public Affairs + Open Data CIO team should be housed in an Office of Citizen Engagement that handles solutions for both.
If we had such a combination, we would have instant chat on every single government website to answer people's questions.
We would also have massive texting as this is how people communicate nowadays when they're on the cell, which is all the time.
A fused office combining Public Affairs and Open Data would administer a social media form of communication that is equally applicable externally and internally.
It would not be the job of these specialists to actually create the information but only to facilitate its distribution.
A key part of the picture is that employees would be freed - through a simple sensible policy - to talk about their work through their own personal social media platforms.
The bottom line is this:
  • Organizations to be credible and relevant must step out of the driver's seat and let the passengers take the wheel.
  • This means that they only guide the conversation, do not dominate it, and make sure they are meeting the legal requirements with respect to transparency.

It's that last part that gets every organization's leadership worked up.
Because if success means that you try to control every aspect of your image, your day to day life as a Public Affairs office will consist of "correcting the record" - i.e. putting out fires - and "getting our story out" - i.e. controlling the narrative. 
This leaves so much opportunity on the floor. Because what people want to read about and hear about is usually precisely the thing that is most shocking and embarrassing to you. Not because they hate you and want to trash you, but because they can only relate to the human factor.
Let me be clear: This is NOT to advocate that every agency run its public affairs like the Kardashian PR machine.
As we can see from the gossip magazines - which I do follow, yes, religiously and unapologetically - the family is falling apart because they have no privacy.
There is a certain amount of space that an organization needs in order to be deliberative. To build trust. You can't live your life under glass all the time.
At the same time, the organization is not real and believable if it acts forced.
Therefore the idea is to engage the public in your story to the point where you are credible, forgivable and beloved.
Do you want to know who does this well? VP Joe Biden! What did he say in that video - "I am proud to be the President" (oops) - and everybody just roared with laughter and went, "Oh, Joe." 
It is no mistake that the Vice President came off so well in his Presidential campaign debate. Because his humanity makes him more engaging. He speaks with passion rather than making every issue dry and boring.
The social media guru Shel Holtz once said in a training class - "Say as much as you can say, and then say - 'I can't say anymore'." That's pretty much the rule to live by.
If you want people to care about your communication you have to speak as if you are a person not a machine (read "The Cluetrain Manifesto," which is available free, online.)
My niece Yaffa Fredrick is currently enjoying her 15 minutes of fame because she was the subject of a New York Times trend piece on how millennials spend all their money on food. (Literally this is the caption beneath her photo.) The article itself is horrifying to me as her aunt because it's totally unfair. Yaffa can balance a checkbook in her sleep. But the reporter used her words against her. 
Yaffa is pretty smart and she went online to do an interview countering the New York Times piece. Now everyone is out there (including me) defending her and saying that the NYT was way out of line. (My take is the reporter hates the show "Girls" and Yaffa was the excuse, because Yaffa bears the most striking resemblance to Lena Dunham, is the same age and is also a writer living in NY).
This is a case study in contemporary communication, in a nutshell. You own the story not by controlling it, but by living it and interacting honestly with those who are interested in you. The fear of making mistakes is not exaggerated, but even the best and most controlling Public Affairs machine won't keep you "safe."
So given all of the above - why would we shut down social media? We should only try to get better at it. 
Note - all opinions as always are my own. 

Why You Should NOT Focus Your Blog Content

Some people think blogs are irrelevant in the age of super simple instant gratification visual type modes of interactive communication. Specifically:
  • Tumblr 
  • Pinterest 
  • Webstagram 
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
However your personal blog is actually more essential than ever - both for work and your personal life - and contrary to the conventional wisdom you should NOT focus it on any one particular thing. Because a serious blog functions like a recruiter, reference, publicist, friend and security tool all at once:
  • Recruiter: Establishes that you are "normal" - i.e. thinking, stable, relatively consistent personality
  • Reference: Tells us what kind of person you are - better than any phony application or profile essay
  • Publicist: Proves that you have the kind of skills you say you have - e.g. nobody can talk about the complexities of code for ten paragraphs unless they actually know something about writing it
  • Friend: As long as you are somewhat artful and avoid the TMI factor, you can confess your fears and insecurities (oh, please be careful about this!) and get a lot of respect in return for your self-confidence. Not to mention camaraderie. (Nothing like a good personal struggle.)
  • Security: This may sound a bit odd or extreme, but forgive me as I am a helicopter mom who has started to work more and more with rootless millenials. And it occurs to me that if you don't have many personal connections but do write a lot on the web, if anything should ever happen to you and you stop blogging, people will notice and ask about your whereabouts. (More so than in the world of microblogging, because it's easier to miss someone's silence amid the noise.)
Now to the question of why you should avoid trying to focus.

Recently I read an apparently popular article to the effect of "Why isn't anyone reading my blog?" and the author argued that for people to read you, you have to optimize the content by keeping it very narrow. The logic of this argument:

1. Your blog exists to promote your business
2. Your business is based around your personal brand
3. Your personal brand gains credence as you demonstrate a skill base
4. If you write things that distract from your skill base the reader will search for someone more focused
5. The more diffused your blog, the less clear what your brand is and the lower your value.

However, this is a fallacious argument, for all the reasons listed above, in the bullet points. You have to look at your social media story like a Facebook timeline. No matter what you say you specialize in today, people are going to find your entries online going back many years. To believe that you are trustworthy at any point in time, they need to see a consistent story.

Now consider that most people occupy multiple identities at the same time (e.g. myself - wife, mother, blogger, brand thinker, writer, sometime adjunct, communicator, government worker, American, Jewish, female, Gen Xer, geek) as well as over the span of their lifetimes (yeshiva graduate, sociologist, adjunct professor, feminist theorist, marketer, government worker, caregiver, retiree). 

That's quite a lot, right? 

If you never talk about anything other than computer code in your blog - there will come a time when you outgrow it. And you need to start a new blog to cover whatever you're working on now. Which means you will have a break in your timeline that is unclear, unexplained.

For this and for the simple reason that it's just easier to be yourself, I strongly argue that your blog should be as unfocused as most people normally are. You should write about what interests you at the moment, what you are passionate about. The only limit being the recognition that you are writing in a public space, and that whatever you put out there, lives forever.

I hope this has been helpful, I recognize it's a bit longer and more wordy than my usual spare style. But it's an important topic and I wanted to show you the logic of the advice rather than just throw it out there.

On a personal note, I just want to wish good luck to President Obama and the Administration on this historic day. May Inauguration Day be the start of a peaceful and productive four years.