Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Escaping Backwards Content

I joined the civil service in 2003 as a Writer-Editor for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Now - before you hit the "snooze" button on your alarm clock, let me tell you that the OCC was a pretty compelling place to be.

You know those incredible credit card offers you get in the mail?

OCC, which regulates the national banks, was out there before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was born -- educating its employees about the risks of deceptive credit marketing.

During my time there, a dynamic and idealistic Elizabeth Warren gave a talk on such practices. I remember how much I enjoyed it and how proud I was to see my resulting article in the newsletter.

SuperVisions, as we called the employee publication, was the major part of my job. As part of the internal communications team, we had to deliver it -- stuffed like a goose with articles -- regularly.

But as I soon discovered, delivering a monthly employee publication that people actually want to read is not such an easy job.

Because while our stated purpose was to deliver compelling content, our actual goal was, mostly, to:
  • Find employees willing to contribute an article.
  • Lightly copyedit their work.
  • Obtain their permission to publish the final version.
It was at the OCC that I earned the (dubious) title of "USA Today," as in, "there you go again, USA Today, oversimplifying everything!"

Now please, don't get me wrong: I consider it a compliment, as a writer, if you "insult" me in that way. Because it means that I've made a difficult thing comprehensible, even interesting.

However, in the professional world that I lived in, such talk was considered harsh.

It didn't seem fair to me.

But what was I to do?

Fast forward a bit and one day I was presented with the opportunity to make an electronic version of the newsletter.

Until that time, it was a given that the bank examiners wanted something in print.

"They like to take it into the bathroom with them and read it," was my supervisor's comment (which I had to think about for a minute. Is that a good thing???)

In any case: We had started using "Lotus Notes," a product you may remember.

This was before the social media years, and apparently the software had a neat little trick built into it -- one that absolutely amazed me.

You could assign ratings to content!

Like a fevered, mad scientist, I labored to bake that special feature into the electronic version.

Now you had a reason to go online!

And now, thanks to Lotus Notes, you could tell us -- the newsletter's editors -- if a particular article was not particularly interesting.

(We could also have measured how many people actually clicked on each particular article.)

I recall that my electronic version debuted with very little fanfare.

I believe my supervisor "previewed" it for all of ten seconds.

And then she screamed, "NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!"

Or at least, to my ears, it sounded like she had.


I had to bend over forward in my chair.

I had to shield my ears.


I was a fully grown human being, all of 32 years old, but that didn't stop me from crying -- bitter, angry tears.

All the way home on the train, through two train connections and a miserable packed train, I cried and cried and cried.

Painfully, I had learned the very first and most important lesson about organizational behavior: Every organization is dysfunctional, but as irrational as it may sound, that dysfunction actually serves a purpose.

Now it's almost 15 years later. Government communication has progressed -- incredibly so.
  • We've learned how to use the tools of the private sector.
  • We've accepted the importance of measuring our own work, using analytic tools that are objective.
  • And we're even starting to agree with the idea that government information can and should be customer-centric first, not a turf-building exercise that skirts appropriations laws that prohibit "puffery and propaganda."
But what we are missing -- what we're still missing -- is the fundamental shift in thinking that has turned the private sector on its head.

The reason we exist, as a government entity, is only to serve the public.

Everything we do, every single piece of content we create, must be aimed at meeting their needs.

If we can't demonstrate that sense of singular purpose -- if we have even a shred of doubt in our minds about whether the words are worth it -- why then should we bother?


This blog post is hereby released by the author, Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal, into the public domain. All opinions are the author's own. Public domain photo via Pixabay.

Friday, June 23, 2017

"You Are A Piece Of Property" - Helping Potential Victims Get Away & Stay Away From Child Sex Traffickers

A few days ago I strongly recommended that everybody watch "Tricked: Inside The World Of Teen Sex Trafficking," a free documentary from the Fairfax County, VA Public Schools.

But since many people don't necessarily want to watch a full-length video when they could read a blog instead, I thought I would share some notes from the presentation.
  1. To the trafficker, you (the victim) are "a piece of property," nothing more. You're not a person and they don't care about you.
  2. A trafficker can tell in 30 seconds who their victims are: kids with low self esteem.
  3. It's OK to just walk away. Say thank you, but no thank you. Be polite, but assertive - don't fall for the idea that you have to engage with people who want to "date" you.
  4. Don't go alone to parties after school. Don't hang out with a group of guys alone. If a group of guys surrounds you, get away as fast as you can. They don't just want to be your friend.
  5. "Sex for money, even just one time, really affects your brain." No matter what they tell you, it's never just once and it's never something you can just forget, ignore and get over.
  6. You won't get in trouble for asking for help. It's not your fault if you were manipulated into doing something you shouldn't. It is not your fault.
  7. It can start out benign, and then have an immediate turnaround - like two guys bringing a video camera into the room, and suddenly you're gang raped on tape and they're blackmailing you.
  8. You may be beaten and threatened. Tell anyway.
  9. Think about the motives of people who want to get close to you.
  10. Tell your parents.
  11. Drugs are how they overcome your conscience. They will "invest" in drugs to keep you going servicing "clients."
  12. "The thrill has a downward hill."
  13. You're not strong enough to deal with it. 
  14. Online, it's easy to make a fake profile. Check out who you're dealing with - that girl could be a boy.
  15. Be careful about hanging out with older people, guys who act like a "father figure" as your boyfriend.
  16. If you feel "icky and anxious," there's a reason. Listen to that inner voice.
  17. Don't fool yourself. Generally, don't fool yourself.
  18. Don't fall victim to peer pressure to seem like you're cool.
  19. Victims are boys and girls. Traffickers look like people you know. Victims may turn around and be traffickers themselves.
  20. Never tell yourself "I'm no good, I'm not a good person." They prey on people with low self esteem. 
  21. They will tell you "you have to pay" for having joined the group, hanging out with them. That's how it starts.
  22. They will prey on your fear of being embarrassed. Don't let them get to you that way.
  23. Young people may know more than adults. 
  24. Don't judge people - e.g. "that's a ho," "she's a slut," "she's a partyer." Ask instead how the person is doing. 
  25. Most victims do not speak up, so if someone you know displays mood changes, anger outbursts, isolation, depression, or is hanging out with a "shady" crowd, you're looking at telltale signs that something is very wrong.


By Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author's own; this blog is posted in the author's personal capacity. Available for reuse under Creative Commons 3.0 License. For more information, visit

Monday, June 19, 2017

"Wonder Woman" & The Civil Servants

As a civil servant, “Wonder Woman” rotated on a different axis for me than everybody else.

They saw a revolutionary figure: the feminist superhero.

There she was, punching out the bad guys, flying through the air, catching bullets with those awesome cuff bracelets. (Pretty cool! Watch for that consumer trend to take off like crazy!)

But from where I sat, the main character was Steve (Chris Pine), the American spy. Where Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) flew off by herself “to do her thing,” Trevor stayed within the bounds of the team. Where she could speak a hundred languages, he knew how to bend the rules of the bureaucracy.

Both of them were technically skilled. Both of them had good intentions.

But it was Steve who understood that the mission never ends. And that to make any difference at all, you have to work in unison, to attack one problem at a time.

The character of Diana reminded me of Carrie (Claire Danes) on the television show “Homeland.”

Like Diana, Carrie is smarter than everyone else on the team. Like Diana, she doesn’t believe in the rules — only in the end goal.

For both heroines, the ends justify the means.

But leadership without management is chaos.

And if I may be permitted a political, editorial comment, this is the point I think President Trump really needs to see.

The President came to Washington, D.C., with the goal of “draining the swamp.” And by God, I think he can really do that.

But along the way, he’s allowed his political appointees to cast aside the very bureaucrats who could help him. People who share the same values and vision.

More than one person has told me that they’ve been treated terribly.

And I can see the morale among my colleagues plummeting as a result.

Don’t get me wrong, we need fearless leaders. Leaders who have the guts to stand up and say when something, or someone, is wrong.

This is exactly how “Wonder Woman,” a.k.a. Diana, is in the movie.

In one memorable scene rails against the turgid military bureaucracy, calling their failure to act aggressively “shameful.”

Diana’s outburst motivates Steve to get outside his comfort zone. He gets his superior on board for a plan that, like in every action movie, is totally against the rules.

I found myself wishing that President Trump had a Steve on board.

In the movie, this character successfully recruits and motivates a jaded team — none of them treated fairly by the system, all of them scarred, each of them somewhat checked-out and disengaged.
  • Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) wanted to be an actor but couldn’t, because his skin is brown. 
  • The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) is demotivated. He has nothing left to fight for, he notes: Steve’s ancestors took that away in the previous war. 
  • Charlie (Ewen Bremner) has post-traumatic stress disorder, and is “haunted by ghosts” — he is a marksman who cannot shoot a gun. 
Speaking to each one with respect, honor and understanding — and throwing in a few beers along the way — Steve successfully assembles a team to take on a nearly impossible mission.

As a student of leadership and management, I couldn’t stop taking notes.

In the end, he teaches even “Wonder Woman” a few important things.

The most significant lesson of all, the one most pertinent to a cog in the bureaucracy, I think — is to honor the reality of what it is you’re fighting for.

For Diana, in her idealistic worldview, wanted to return the world to a state of perfection. Where people could be seen as fundamentally good.

Steve, on the other hand, was more in tune with the realities of human nature. “We’re all good and bad,” he says. “It’s what you believe that matters.”

What civil servants see, all the time, is that there is goodness and badness in all people — you’re never going to “cure” the dark side of human nature.

All you can do is fight the bad as it comes up. Not by hoping and dreaming. But by applying “hard skills and soft skills” impartially, accurately and above all humanely.

I have worked in the civil service for more than a dozen years. The people who work here genuinely want to serve. And if you don’t believe that what I’m saying is true, and you don’t want to spend your time on surveys — just talk to anyone who’s been walked through a maze of confusing rules by none other than a Fed.

“Wonder Woman” was a great movie.

It was great to see a strong female character like that.

And it really put all the discussion of corruption in perspective.

For while there will always be a few bad apples with disproportionate influence, I agree with Diana, not Steve — most people are essentially and inherently good.

And it made me appreciate the vast majority of my peers, hardworking and decent people.

I wish they would get the positive feedback and support they deserve.


By Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author’s own; this blog is posted in the author’s personal capacity. Available for reuse under Creative Commons 3.0 License. Photo source: “Gal Gadot, Chris Pine Talk ‘Wonder Woman,’” Front Row Features, for editorial use only (direct link to photo here). Caption: (l-r) Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Gal Gadot as Diana, Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief and Ewen Bremner as Charlie in the action adventure “Wonder Woman.” ©Warner Bros. Entertainment/Ratpac Dune Entertainment. CR: Clay Enos.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Shabbos at Camp Tagola

I am maybe thirteen years old, and I am going out on the lake, in a speedboat at Camp Tagola.
My legs are hooked up to the thing that you wear when you’re going to ride the water.
And I hold on, God knows how I did it, until the boat takes off and for maybe three seconds I am standing up just like that in the water.
I’m flying!
The memory of those three seconds is so weird.
It’s like the time was so incredibly short, but I can cover myself in that sensation for as long as I want to, whenever I put myself back there.
In the morning before Shabbos we would have an activity period, and I would go waterskiing as much as I humanly could.
Those were the days when you could take time to get ready for Shabbos.
There was no thing of working right up until the last minute, and then begrudgingly setting up the candles. Eating somebody else’s homemade cooking, that you took home as takeout food.
I remember we would all line up for the showers in the bunk.
The floors of those showers were so gross, lined and spotted with dirt and dirty leaves, but nobody ever bothered to clean them.
We didn’t care. We took our showers and put on something relatively clean and brushed our hair.
The more sophisticated among us put on lip gloss.
We all went out to the walking path to synagogue in lines. (At camp, we called this structure the synagogue, even though it was basically a large, very simple, cabin.)
There were prayerbooks at the front of the synagogue and we took them and sat down on the hard wooden benches.
Nobody complained.
The country air felt so good on my cheeks.
Most of the service was singing.
“Lecha Dodi, Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah, Penai Shabbat Nekabela, Lecha Dodi Lekrat Kallah, Pnai Shabbat Nekabelah.”
God, I remember it like it was yesterday.
We turned and swirled and swayed to the songs. I can still smell the trees in my nostrils.
After services we walked up to the dining hall.
You can’t imagine how good the food was.
And there were trays, and trays, and trays of it, steaming hot.
The kids did not have to go crazy, fighting for the last morsel of the kiddush. Because there was just so — much — food.
Just like we sat together in the synagogue, we ate together at the meal.
My mother worked there as the nurse and I enjoyed absconding from my bunk every week to sit with her and my dad, who would come up for the weekend.
Shabbos days I clearly remember, as well.
They were so incredibly lazy.
We sat on the lawn and talked.
We played “chamesh avanim,” five rocks. Tossed the rocks one at a time up in the air, and tried to catch them again on the way down.
Played tetherball.
I broke every single finger on my hands playing that game. I loved it.
Again I sat with my mom and dad in the afternoon.
And somehow nighttime approached, the end of Sabbath, and we gathered again in the dining hall for kumsitz. (We sat around in a large circle and sang.)
Shabbos is going away,
Shabbos is gone it’s the end of the day
Oh Shabbos you really should know
We’re sorry to see you go.
But you will come back next week we know.
Yes you will come back ’cause we love you so.
So let us thank HaShem,
Who will bring Shabbos back again.”
I miss those years.
I miss the innocence.
I miss when Shabbos could truly be called a day of rest.
All opinions my own. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons 3.0. Public domain photo via Pixabay.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Help Your Partners Announce Your Announcement

The federal government offers many free tools that are useful to communicators regardless of where they work. One of these is "Promoting Your Public Report: A Hands-On Guide," (available in PDF and online), published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

I stumbled across this helpful guide and found it both comprehensive and concise. You can use it strictly for promoting publications, or more broadly when informing the public about other matters.

The intended purpose of the document is to help you plan ahead of time for major announcements, by considering all the ways in which you might communicate about them. But there is another, potentially far more powerful way to use it. And that is to develop templates that in effect multiply your efforts a thousand fold, by helping your partners to customize and share your message as it suits their needs.

This type of communication functions like "semi-homemade cooking," mixing basic elements that you provide (e.g., information and answers to frequently asked questions) with elements that your partners find independently relevant.

One example of this, which appears below, is a brief stakeholder email. The email is comprised of three parts:
  • Brief introduction - "bottom line up front" - what is this and why does it matter.
  • Suggested path forward for sharing the information - concise and linear.
  • Links to supporting materials - general text for announcements, fact sheet, and anticipated questions and answers.
Here is the text of the email. Material to be customized appears in brackets. Of course, you can customize the template as you wish, including adding links to social media, interactive educational tools, event announcements, and so on:
Dear [name], 
On [date], [name] [did or will] [insert action here]. [Offer a bit more detail as to what this means and why it’s important – 1-2 sentences.] The purpose of this email is to assist you, as our partner in coordinated communication, to promote the report to your audiences at the right time. 
Below is a timeline and six suggested steps to take. Also included are a few supporting materials to help make this process as easy as possible for you or your communication team. 
TIMELINE AND SUGGESTED STEPS (leading up to and including when the report becomes public):
  1. [DATE RANGE]. Issue announcement to key audience/s about this initiative. Use the fact sheet and frequently asked questions (below).
  2. [DATE RANGE]. Include articles in internal newsletter(s) to your audience about your involvement in this effort as part of your commitment to [major goal of this stakeholder group]. Don't forget to mention the launch date, which will be [Month ##].
  3. [DATE RANGE]. Include articles in external newsletter(s) to your audience about your involvement in this effort as part of your commitment to [major goal of this stakeholder group]. Include the launch date of [Month ##], plus the [initiative]'s Web address ([add URL here]) for questions.
  4. [X days before launch] Share the list of Questions & Answers with internal staff /employee leaders. Refer questions to [insert POC] by Emailing [EMAIL ADDRESS HERE] or calling [(###) ###-####].
  5. [DAY of REPORT RELEASE] Email an announcement (attached) to your leadership and employees about the report along with the link to the initiative, which will be [URL here].
  6. [DAY OF REPORT RELEASE] Link the initiative website to your intranet and public Web site.
  • General Text for Announcements. [INSERT URL – SUBPAGE WITHIN INITIATIVE WEB PAGE] (Customize text before sending it.)
  • Questions & Answers (a.k.a. Frequently Asked Questions). [INSERT URL – SUBPAGE WITHIN INITIATIVE WEB PAGE]
By taking a coordinated approach, we will increase the number of people who are aware of the initiative, which is the first step toward using it to [insert major goal]. 
Thank you for your willingness to do your part in sharing this information with the public. Please let us know if you have any questions. 
[Contact Information]
Good luck.

By Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author's own. Public Domain. Photo via Wikipedia.