Government Critics: A PR Opportunity

If you haven't heard of Alex Jones before you probably know the name now after the epic TV battle between him and Piers Morgan.

As of today,


people have watched Piers Morgan and Jones go at it over gun control.

I've been reading Jones' and similar blogs for a few years now, roughly since the Fast and Furious scandal broke (2010).

As a Homeland Security component employee working in public affairs (I joined another agency last year), this should have been laudable. After all from a communications perspective there were so many factors involved that almost required such attention:

  • An agent - a fellow employee - murdered, and deep concern among the workforce
  • Relatively closemouthed agency - information shared internally based on "need to know" culture 
  • Insistent and persistent criticism from the blogosphere 
  • Speculation on public but not publicized employee social media boards about what was happening
  • Relative silence in the mainstream media

While the subject matter was very complicated, it was clear to me that there were opportunities for government to say more, and I urged them to do so. As the communications expert Shel Holtz once advised us in a training class (paraphrasing):

"Your job as a communicator is to go to the very edge of what you can say, and then say, I really can't say any more - then hold the line."

Nevertheless, the people at Homeland Security hadn't taken that class. The overriding impression that I got was:

  • Silence feels safe to leaders, but it creates the impression of guilt to one's audience
  • In the void created by silence, people are driven to tell a negative narrative, if only to self-soothe
  • They will use whatever documentation they have (or think they have) to develop that narrative
  • Social media has a way of attracting voices of negativity, drama and conspiracy theories
  • There is a self-fulfilling cycle at work where criticism from the public creates fear and the urge to "hunker down"
  • Law enforcement culture is deeply hierarchical (obviously) and therefore averse to upward feedback (e.g. criticism from the bottom of the chain upward)
  • People who speak up (internally or externally) are seen as troublemakers
  • Real communication seems to take place informally among peers
  • Written communication is perceived as potentially litigious
  • Culture change is incredibly slow, almost glacial.
If these observations are accurate it would follow that external critics of the government would be considered troublemakers. If you don't let your own employees have their say, then why would you welcome negative external feedback at all, especially from someone who is not fully aware of the facts?

I worked for a component of DHS for seven years. I worked in Public Affairs. I did not see a vast conspiracy to strip people of their rights. I did see the normal politics and infighting. I also saw people who were beyond dedicated to their mission. I interviewed an officer who had nightmares about being the "weak link in the chain" - the cause of another 9/11.

I travel frequently enough to deal with the Transportation Services Administration (TSA) with some regularity. I don't see them doing evil things. Well, once I saw them pull aside a pretty girl in a short skirt for questioning. Stuff happens, people are stupid, and some are even criminal. But the reality and the paranoia are two very different things.

That doesn't mean there are no problems - or that critics are wrong - or that any suspected wrongdoing should not be investigated. Only that in the absence of communication between Agency and critics, both sides get their hackles up, and mutual paranoia ensues.

Yesterday I met a veteran of the Customs Service - the agency that existed before U.S. Customs and Border Protection. We knew a lot of the same people. I stood in awe of the dedication of this person. I won't share the stories I heard. But again, the overwhelming impression was - the vast majority of government employees - civil service employees - are good people trying to do a good job under imperfect circumstances.

It's hard for me to understand the resistance to feedback that I see in government. It's like a terrible fear: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The worst kind of monster is the one that's hiding under your bed. Just talk it out, hold a town hall, let people share what's bothering them. At the worst you'll find out that corruption exists - but isn't that the best thing?

It's never a good thing to make situations black and white. Most of life is pretty gray. I'd like to see more engagement between people who hold diametrically opposing views. 

From the views of that YouTube video, it seems like many other people would, too.

*Note: As always, ALL opinions are my own.