Communication Lessons from the Shutdown Crisis

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. 

Nevertheless it is not hard to see the principles of communication at work everywhere in this shutdown crisis. 

I won't even go into my thoughts about the ability of good communication to avert the crisis in the first place. This is only about the practices that took place once the wheels were set into motion.



I. Positive Lessons

  • Hold a meeting whether you have answers or not: At my agency we held a staff meeting where people could ask questions of senior leadership, and vent as well. Even if the answers weren’t there, the people had an opportunity to be heard and supported. 
  • Show you care: At the meeting, leadership showed – not just in words but in tone of voice and body language – sincere care and concern. They knew about the “ouch” factor associated with being termed “essential” or not or “exempt” or not and came prepared with the message that no matter what we were called for the purpose of a furlough, we still mattered critically to the mission.
  • Stop doing other things till crisis is addressed: We had a lot of projects going on, but the agency did virtually nothing but try to figure out what was going on and what it meant to us. 
  • Recognize the average staffer: We went out to lunch – no money, so McDonald’s – and someone had to stay back to take care of business. Second-line manager says, “What do you want? I’ll bring you back something.” The someone says, “Quarter pounder with cheese and a Sprite.” Takes out his wallet. Manager waves hand, says, “I’ve got it.” Smiles. Now THAT is a leader. I will never forget that.
  • Fight the good fight: A lot of discussion in the government goes on about terminology. We were steadfast in fighting the word “nonessential” to describe ANY employee, even if it was for the purpose of a furlough. Nonessential today, and how will you keep them employed tomorrow? Words like that hurt.

II. We Can Do Better

  • Abuse of weblinks: A web link is supposed to give you more information after a certain amount of base information has already been conveyed. Not speaking for the situation in any agency but rather across the board, there was way too much referring of people to weblinks rather than explaining in plain English what the story was. An excellent example was the situation with unemployment. Employees were referred to state websites, and then the state websites didn’t explain much. Were we eligible for unemployment or not? What documents would we need? How could we say we were actively looking for work if we had to get permission from a supervisor to work, and the supervisor was on furlough and couldn’t “work” and therefore couldn’t give us permission?
  • Defaulting responsibility to the media and message boards: It is up to the employer to provide information to the employee, not to rely on major news outlets. We don’t do this in any other situation that I can think of. It goes without saying that we should not be relying on message boards for information at all – these are only a supplement to official information. Can we not have a plan to officially pipe information to employees in the event there is a shutdown? As much as I like GovLoop, to default to them or anyone else seems like an abdication of responsibility.
  • Multiple decision processes per agency rather than a unified approach: Emergency planning benefits from a consistent, integrated, unified approach, especially when you’re talking about the federal government and rules that pretty much apply to all people (obviously there are exceptions). Somebody please tell me why there is not a shutdown council composed of representatives of all the agencies, that makes decisions, issues a plan and gets us ready just in case? One cannot help but wonder how we would handle a crisis for which we had no advance notice.
  • Inexplicably telling the communicators to go home: Communicators reach audiences. Communicators reduce confusion. Communicators soothe hurt feelings. Communicators reduce redundancy, eliminate process duplication, and ask tough questions. Communicators should be retained and possibly even expanded in the event of a crisis. (I do have self-interest here because I am a communicator, but I agree with myself. So there.)
  • Failure to use social media. It’s 2011, people. Time to get with the program. Get over it. Put the information out there. For G-d's sake, we check Facebook the first thing when we wake up in the morning, right after the email. We don't have a 24/7 hookup to CNN! So get on social media and make it redundant with official channels. A temporary Facebook page, a Twitter account at the very least. A widget, a mobile app just for federal employees. A discussion board, an idea program. We have so many talented people in the government, and guess what? Lots of them know how to use these tools! Saying that the lawyers don’t understand it and the IT folks are nervous (and so on, and so on) is just not good enough anymore.

The bottom line is, we in government are actually running a business. The business of keeping the country going.

As such, we have to prove to our bosses - the public, which pays our bills - our worth. Every single day. Or we are in danger of incurring their wrath and losing our jobs. 

We have to prove our worth to our employees, too – that we are a good place to work and that we care about them (us). Or we won't get anyone to work here.

Communication is paramount to doing all of this. It is part of keeping our promise - yes, our brand promise. 

We owe good communication to the public. We owe it to ourselves.


(Note: as always, all opinions my own and I do not represent any individual or entity in my posts.) 




Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal is an author, independent brand researcher, and adjunct marketing professor with 20 years of varied experience. An avid researcher and prolific, creative writer, Dr. Blumenthal's interests span communication, marketing, qualitative media content analysis, political rhetoric, propaganda, leadership, management, organizational development, and more. An engaged citizen, she has for several years worked to raise awareness around child sex trafficking and the dangers of corruption at @drdannielle on Twitter. You can find her articles at Medium, and, and she frequently answers questions on Quora. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own.