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When The Public Wants Information, Resistance Is Futile





In my nuclear family we never talked about controversial stuff. Basically, we handled conflict either by my mother saying "shhh" or my grandmother saying "shhh."

If unfortunately it would happen that a fight broke out, we simply didn't talk to one another. Three days was the minimum, a few months was the max. It was never clear how we would start talking again, because nobody believed in apologizing. But just as it began, it would be over and talking about whatever the fight was about was simply not allowed.

"Shhh."

Joining the government more than a decade ago, I rapidly felt right at home.

"There is a problem with this program that the public should know about."

"Shhh."

"Someone is selling a service we provide for free, and charging $250."

"Shhh."

"Our technology is on eBay."

"Shhh."

"I have a Tweet I would like you to consider for your approval."

"I don't know what that is. Let me see the briefing book."

Once a boss once even warned me that "they might even question your loyalty if you continue to push them to talk."

"Shhh."

I programmed the electronic newsletter so that readers could give articles 1-5 star ratings.

"Shh."

They made me take it down.

Elsewhere, I said to the boss: "I still have no idea how your business model works, and if you can't explain it to me how can I possibly explain it to the world?"

"Shh."

Maybe its' me. Maybe Gen Xers make everything into too big of a deal.

For Millennials and Generation Z are totally online, all the time. In fact they don't seem to have any concept of personal privacy, taboo topics, or whatever. For them, it's all part of the same newsfeed.

And so I have to believe that for those who seek information from the government going forward, there will be this kind of attitude like "of course you owe me all the information."

It won't be deferential like in the past. The public won't be saying, "Oh, it's okay, I heard you before when you said 'shhh.'"

Information is expected. The kids, and more and more their parents, demand nothing less.

This is nothing short of a revolution.

We will see the public insist that government provide the highest levels of customer service, transparency, and yes, return on investment based on metrics.

It will be common for us to answer questions by Tweet, text, chat, customer service, email, telephone call, and even those little avatars that jump around the screen and anticipate what is wanted.

Times have changed. There is no such thing as avoiding the public because we don't like the questions or the expectations they are bringing us.

In a world where Google is a verb and not a noun, "shhh" just doesn't work anymore as a default answer from the government.

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Photo via Wikipedia. All opinions my own.

5 Distorted Ideas About Communication That Destroy Americans' Trust In Government



I've been a government communicator for a long time. In 13 years of doing this job at half a dozen federal agencies, I see the same problems over and over again. They lead people to think that the government can't be trusted, when the problem really is that we allow a bunch of messed-up ideas to govern the way we talk to people.
  • Messed up idea #1: Make them look for it: Typically the government keeps its mouth shut about things unless it absolutely has to communicate. The faulty reasoning behind this notion is that communicating with the public will inevitably lead to misunderstanding at best and public opposition at worst. As any journalist will tell you, just the opposite is true. The more you keep the public informed of your activities and the output of your operations, the greater their trust in you. The policy should be to overcommunicate, overcommunicate, overcommunicate, and overcommunicate some more. (In very plain and accessible English, which by the way is also the law.)
  • Messed up idea #2: People read paragraphs. The year now is 2016. You can barely get people to read a Tweet. Why would you continue to offer them any written communication where the words are bunched up like a legal contract? Do you know what happens when people read legal contracts? They call their lawyers, because it looks like someone is trying to fool them. The more you write for comprehension, the greater your audience's trust in you. Aim for short, 2-3 sentence paragraphs, with lists broken up into bullets, and offer a link to more detailed information should the person desire it.
  • Messed up idea #3: We're talking to a bunch of Ph.Ds. Let's be honest, in Washington we tend to have our heads in our intestines quite a bit when it comes to writing things for the public. Do you know how hard it is to qualify for a government job, how many degrees people have over here? It's not uncommon for someone to have two master's degrees and a Ph.D., or a Ph.D. and a J.D., or even a J.D. and an M.D. You might think this is great news since you've got a lot of "smart" people running the country, but the problem is that most people don't have multiple advanced degrees. It is not our job to pass judgment on what people should understand. It is our job to talk to people in a way that makes sense to them. We tend to forget that they are the ones that pay the bills.
  • Messed up idea #4: Less is more in a crisis. As a private citizen I watch the news of bombs in New York City with horror. I see bomb threats at my local public school and shudder. And I look for information from the government. Where is it? Nowhere! Because the government is much too conservative about sharing information with the public. Even if there is nothing to say, the government should put a point person in charge of crisis communication and that person should provide constant updates, meaning literally every half an hour. If this doesn't happen, the public automatically believes everybody else and is prone to assume that there is a coverup.
  • Messed up idea #5: Your opinion is as good as mine. This cognitive bias is nothing new to government communicators or even communicators in the private sector. The fact of the matter is that telling people things in a way that informs and engages is extremely difficult. You can be in communication your whole career and never figure it out, not just because it's a difficult skillset but also because the nature of your audience and their information environment is constantly changing over time. So when amateurs think that they know better than a communicator how to get the words out, that is frankly nothing less than shocking. If you're paying someone to deliver words, trust them to do their job and take their advice unless you have a good reason not to.

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All opinions my own. Photo by JJ via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Interview on Popular Culture and Feminism now available

You can find the full interview here, at NoDon'tDie.com.


As always, all opinions are my own.

Free Pre-Recorded Webinar, "Advancing Federal Government Communications," Now Available

On September 13, 2016 I presented a webinar for the Federal Communicators Network called "Advancing Federal Government Communications." The audio is now available here (includes slide presentation). You'll need to have Java enabled to see and hear it.


Note: as always, all opinions are my own.

How Bad People Rise To The Top




If I had a list of Top 10 topics that people like to talk about in life, this one would undoubtedly be on it. In his book of the same name, Harold Kushner asked Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People and this is sort of the same thing.

How is it that jerks always seem to get ahead while "nice guys finish last?"

Based on my observations of evil, awful, corrupt leaders over the past fifteen years or so, here are a few suggestions:

1) They have infinite ambition. You and I want to go home at the end of the day. We want to have a life, go to the movies, make art. We feel bad when our work commitments cut into our family time. But to a corrupt leader, the only thing that matters is getting the position they're after.

2) They lack emotional intelligence.
You and I feel bad when we see somebody crying. But the corrupt leader either doesn't notice or doesn't know why they should care. They don't relate to other people.

3) They feel fundamentally deprived of something they perceive as owed to them. You and I say to ourselves, we have to work for stuff in order to get it. And when we work hard and bad things happen, we maybe don't understand it, but we don't feel entitled either. But the corrupt leader perceives differently. They've worked for it, or they should have had it all along, and if they don't get it the nice way then they're just going to take it.

4) They have no conscience. You and I feel bad when we do something wrong. But to a corrupt leader, the only thing that is "wrong" is something or someone that gets in their way.

5) They don't believe in universal justice. This is by no means a potshot at atheists, although I know it's going to sound like it. But the opposite of corruption is the belief that some sort of system of justice exists well outside of yourself. It doesn't mean that you "feel" a sense of right or wrong (this is conscience) but rather that you intellectually comprehend and appreciate even the possibility that everything we do has a consequence. Corrupt leaders don't believe in this type of logic at all, not faith-based and not any rational argument that makes the case for karma. Rather, they see the world as essentially meaningless: They make the law, and if you don't like it, then you'll have to come and pry their winnings away yourself and prove it.

If you think about this for any length of time, you might come to the conclusion that natural law favors the corrupt. However true this may be, it also appears that social norms are taking us in the opposite direction, to favor "prosocial" behavior. This is because we have more and more metrics showing that helpfulness is not only a predictor of success later in life, but also demonstrably increases team productivity.

You've heard the saying "every dog has his day." Well I think this is true when it comes to corruption as well. It may seem like we live in an era where justice is unobtainable. But I like to think that a new day is dawning, and soon.

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All opinions my own. Photo by Lisbokt via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Reflections on my pre-Rosh HaShanah visit with the family


This is a picture of a certificate I got in the Hebrew year תשׁמא, or 5741 (1980) when I was 9 years old. My father found it in the attic. Apparently as a kid I dragged the family to 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights to get a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and at that time my father purchased a letter in a Torah on my behalf.

This certificate might not seem very significant to you but it matters to me a whole lot. It says that even if I am not religious (or observant, call it whatever you want) like my family raised me to be, that I still have a place in the Torah. The Torah, mind you, not just the Jewish community but the actual body of law that describes our contract with G-d.

Someone posted an excerpt on Facebook the other day with violent language from the parsha. At that time I wrote that we can't possibly even try to understand what the literal words mean anymore. I say this not with any authority whatsoever, not as a rabbi and not as a scholar and not even as a man, for it is only men who are commanded to learn the Torah.

Rather I speak as a Jew who learned the principles of right living from my family and from Yeshiva and from whatever books and articles I may have picked up in my life. It's just wrong to take excerpts from the hoy texts and use them to justify hating on religion.

That said, I cannot be considered a religious person. As I was telling my daughter the other day, religion means that you go along with the community. You may not agree with everything they do but you have to be a part of it, even if technically you could do something different.

The classic example we debate about is skirts versus pants for women. I'm sure you can bring me a thousand proofs that pants are halachically allowed. Having just spent 24 hours in Passaic, New Jersey, quite the hotbed of Orthodox Jewish living, I am telling you that if you want to be part of the Orthodox community you've got to live with wearing skirts. And not just any skirts, but skirts that cover the knee in a way that would be considered modest.

I had a good time with my family yesterday. My sister remarked half-jokingly that I was storing it all up so that I could write my blog today. I guess so, although that sounds very cold. Because this is what writers do, we sort of half-live life and half-watch ourselves living it so that we can turn around and tell you a story. 

So mostly I was observing things, and also trying to come to terms with things, because one of the most painful aspects of my life right now is the feeling of being a "failure" when it comes to religion. If you weren't raised Orthodox you can't understand it, but it is a process akin to brainwashing. Every minute of every day is spent acculturating you to the group, convincing you that the group is right, teaching you how to be in the group, debating what the group says.

If you don't want to be a part of it, then "something went wrong" and your family must have failed you.

But I am pretty sure now, as I leave my parents' home, that my feelings about religion have nothing to do with any person or experience or failure on their functioning as indoctrinators into the system. I feel a little bit like Asher Lev in Chaim Potok's book The Chosen, which if you haven't read it, is about a Hasidic kid who is blessed with artistic talent. 

In the book Asher Lev, who is quite devout, struggles with the fact that this demon, really, is inside of him and trying to get out, and it will take him away from religion. I think that writing is much the same thing. It's like when you see the world from the perspective of the writing, you just can't make the same judgment calls that religion does. The meaning of morality is whether your writing passes the litmus test of artistic truth. It isn't what is written in the Chumash. And if you want to be religious, you cannot be an artist at the same time.

In Passaic I remarked that the streets seemed somehow smaller than I remembered. My parents' house was smaller, though everything was placed just the same as the last time I was there. I can't explain why my perception shifted. 

I walked through this house inhabited by these people, really complete strangers to me in a way. I almost couldn't recognize them as the same figures who had raised me as a child...in fact my memories of childhood are almost completely gone.

What I saw were two nice, well-intentioned people in a suburban neighborhood way too religiously suffocating for me to be there. There is a bond in the family that is a little hard to describe; I think all of us suffer from the same sense of dislocation, to varying degrees. But we don't have the words to articulate it.

I literally dread going to shul this Rosh HaShanah, but I know that I will anyway. I will pay my respects to G-d. Not because I am part of the Orthodox community, or any community that I can explain with any meaning. 

I will go because it's Rosh HaShanah, and once a year, families go.

In my heart I know that G-d is a just and merciful originator of love for all of His creations. I have to believe that the way I was made is not an accident.

Doesn't make it hurt any less when I ponder what a failure I am, what a true disappointment to my yeshiva teachers. 

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All opinions my own. Photo by me.