Thursday, April 9, 2015

Personal v. Professional Communication In A Government Job - My Two Cents

The issue of personal vs. professional public communication comes up for me a lot. 

In the spirit of being helpful, here are some thoughts. I really put a lot of time into this one, and asked for feedback before sharing the below as well. I was concerned you'd read my own personal "cheat sheet" and think I was speaking for my agency. 

It's tricky, right? Because I am bound by policy like everyone else, but at the same time we all have to use common sense.

**Long way of saying, these thoughts are not necessarily truisms across the government at all, and are offered only as a way of participating in an ongoing dialogue across our individual organizations.**

I. Variables

1. Agency - explicit and implicit rules/culture; includes your relationship with your supervisor, with Public Affairs, with other internal stakeholders 

2. Role - communicator or technical subject matter expert, for example 

3. Media of choice - e.g. book, blog, newspaper column, Tweet 

4. Seniority

5. Visibility personally; visibility of program 

6. Whether you routinely deal with public-facing information or non-public facing information 

7. Types of topics you tend to communicate about - e.g., are they related to your job, are they explicitly about your job, are you an official communicator on behalf of your program, are they about the policy/management/budget of your agency, and so on

II. What I Do 

1. Public communication outside my job and outside the area of expertise for which I was hired - I don't consult with the agency but I do keep in mind that I'm a public servant and that my actions always reflect on the brand of the federal government as well as my agency.

2. If a reporter calls me on an unofficial basis, I call Public Affairs. 

3.   If I produce content where I'm offering expertise about government communication specifically, I ask Public Affairs/my boss to review it before posting. Review doesn't mean approval, it means giving them a chance to react. Sometimes I miss things that can be misinterpreted.

4. If I produce a substantive piece (e.g. a blog, brochure, video) about my program or the policy/management/budget of my agency, Public Affairs/my boss have input and can disapprove it.

5. I direct reporters straight to Public Affairs for official media interviews rather than taking the call and then serving as an intermediary.

III. Things I Keep In Mind

1.  Public Affairs is busy

2.  Beware of broad, general, strong, declarative statements that lack substantiation 

3. Thoughtful, substantive, nuanced communication is vastly better, but too technical or complex and you lose your audience 

4.  Content tends to be better when it's "fresh" and "stream of consciousness" but feedback also tends to help 


IV. Other

1. I use a strong disclaimer that incorporates a statement like "I don't represent my agency or the federal government as a whole." This can seem like overkill until you hear from people who literally tell you that they think you're speaking for the government when you're totally not.

2. In personal communication, I don't name my agency in the disclaimer because that just draws more attention to the agency, and my goal is to keep the distinction intact.

3. You are entitled to be human and unique and everybody understands that some social media environments are more informal, like Facebook. But also remember that the higher your position in the organization, the more likely that your opinions may be interpreted as your agency's opinions, even with a disclaimer.

4. Be especially cautious when it comes to the Hatch Act. 

5. Remember that posts to professional listservs are a form of public communication. You see it as an email, but a thousand people just got that rant.

- Dannielle Blumenthal

P.S. This is one of those posts where I want to reinforce that this is a post based on my own experience; others' experiences and the expectations placed on them will vary widely, even within the same agency; any opinions expressed are my own; and of course my personal thoughts don't reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo via Wikimedia.