Tuesday, October 17, 2017

8 Key Points About Agency Messaging

This morning, October 17, 2017, I attended an excellent lecture by Prof. Lara Shane, a faculty member at American University. Prof. Shane is a top-caliber professional -- an alumnus of the Department of Homeland Security, CBS News, and the Partnership for Public Service, which cosponsored the event with the Federal Communicators Network.

The point of the lecture was to help communicators understand the concept of messaging. Although I think most of us know what that is by now, even to the point of excess, it is helpful to have a very seasoned, qualified and intelligent federal communicator break it down in a logical and step-by-step manner.

Prof. Shane incorporated concepts from Chip and Dan Heath's book Made to Stick, and she used a live example of dense government-style writing to show what many of us do wrong.

Professor Shane's Most Important Quotes
  • "Helping the American public is our ultimate goal."
  • "Just because we're communicating doesn't mean we do it well."
Key Point #1 -- You Need A Strategy
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Who do we need to engage to make that happen?
  • Once they're engaged, what do we want them to do?
  • Why should they care -- how will this action benefit them?
  • Where will they see your message - use multiple channels
(Source: Prof. Shane)
Key Point #2 -- Nobody Believes the Government, So You Will Have To Prove Yourself
  • The audience has to believe that you are offering a credible source of information, but trust in government is at a historic low.
  • Implicit assumptions like "we're the government, we don't have to establish our authority" or "you have to trust us" don't work; actually they are counterproductive.
  • Feds do not seem to understand just how much the public mistrusts the government (during the event, as I was live-tweeting, someone jokingly responded - "let us know if they attempt to brainwash you").
  • Simplifying, even oversimplifying, is fine, but you need to balance that with copious amounts of open data, well organized.
  • Don't insult the public by treating them like they're stupid.
(Source: Me)

Key Point #3 -- If A Tree Falls And Nobody Hears It, The Tree Did Not Fall
  • Speak in the language of your audience.
  • Keep it as simple, clear and focused as possible.
  • If nobody understands you then you aren't saying anything. Too abstract: "broad mission area." 
  • Focus on a benefit to them, e.g. educate parents about emergency readiness -- they want to protect their children.
  • Offer a fun fact, e.g. "did you know that..."
  • Information has to be repeated 15 times to be remembered.
(Source: Prof. Shane)

Key Point #4 -- You're Probably Turning People Off By Making These Common Mistakes 
  • Jargon
  • Over-complexity
  • Unfocused multiple messages
  • Trying to include every single piece of information
  • Too much data and not enough of the human element
(Source: Prof. Shane)

Key Point #5 -- What Motivates People Is...People
  • It's often about emotion and identity, not just self-interest.
  • Focus on humanity - e.g. the problem exists on a large scale (data); here's how this person's life was transformed.
  • Fear only works when immediate action is needed, e.g. evacuation; don't do fear and anger as a default.
  • Think in terms of storylines - "David and Goliath," innovative/creative ways that agency helped solve a problem.
(Source: Prof. Shane)

Key Point #6 -- We Don't Control The Media
  • The media isn't automatically interested; it takes work to get them to pick up a story.
  • We live in a "sound bite" society -- people have a short attention span and you're competing against many other sources of information.
  • Tie your communication to something they care about, e.g. "federal employees are an early warning sign" when it comes to potential disasters.
  • Tie your story to current events, e.g. sexual harassment awareness and response.
(Source: Prof. Shane)

Key Point #7 -- Lawyers Should Do Law

  • Lawyer's job is "to keep us on legally safe ground" (Prof. Shane)
  • Communicator's job requires different skills - "move people to act" (Prof. Shane)
  • "Everyone thinks they're the best communicators. Especially the lawyers" (Prof. Shane)
  • Audience comment (W. Aaron French, on Twitter): "Battling this [attitude] is my professional work."
  • Another audience comment: "The lawyers think that they know everything" 
(Sources: Prof. Shane and audience)

Key Point #8 -- It Is Impossible To Read Some Of These Dense Government Documents (Even The Summaries)
  • No sentence from the federal government should be a paragraph long. (Me)
  • A press release should not read like a dissertation. (Me)
  • Audience comment: "Why didn't the really important things get bullets?" 
(Sources: me and another member of the audience)

Notes & Disclaimers
  • This is not a complete summary. I could not stay for the entire event, but live-tweeted as much as I could (see hashtag #FCNTRNG). For the sake of accuracy, I've tried as best I can to indicate who said what. The categories of information are mine as are the sub-headers.
  • Personal opinion only. As you read this, please keep in mind that event attendees do so in our own personal capacities, not as representatives of our agencies.
  • Public event. No secrets here; the event was live-streamed.
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Public domain. See disclaimer; all opinions are my own. Photo by TeroVesalainen, CC0 Creative Commons, via Pixabay.