Skip to main content

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.

________________________________

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

Popular posts from this blog

What is the difference between "brand positioning," "brand mantra," and "brand tagline?"

Brand positioning statement: This is a 1–2 sentence description of what makes the brand different from its competitors (or different in its space), and compelling. Typically the positioning combines elements of the conceptual (e.g., “innovative design,” something that would be in your imagination) with the literal and physical (e.g., “the outside of the car is made of the thinnest, strongest metal on earth”). The audience for this statement is internal. It’s intended to get everybody on the same page before going out with any communication products.Brand mantra: This is a very short phrase that is used predominantly by people inside the organization, but also by those outside it, in order to understand the “essence” or the “soul” of the brand and to sell it to employees. An example would be Google’s “Don’t be evil.” You wouldn’t really see it in an ad, but you might see it mentioned or discussed in an article about the company intended to represent it to investors, influencers, etc.Br…

Nitro Cold Brew and the Oncoming Crash of Starbucks

A long time ago (January 7, 2008), the Wall Street Journal ran an article about McDonald's competing against Starbucks.
At the time the issue was that the former planned to pit its own deluxe coffees head to head with the latter.
At the time I wrote that while Starbucks could be confident in its brand-loyal consumers, the company, my personal favorite brand of all time,  "...needs to see this as a major warning signal. As I have said before, it is time to reinvent the brand — now.  "Starbucks should consider killing its own brand and resurrecting it as something even better — the ultimate, uncopyable 'third space' that is suited for the way we live now.  "There is no growth left for Starbucks as it stands anymore — it has saturated the market. It is time to do something daring, different, and better — astounding and delighting the millions (billions?) of dedicated Starbucks fans out there who are rooting for the brand to survive and succeed." Today as …

Should I Add My Beer-Focused Instagram Account To My LinkedIn profile?

This is my response to a question originally posed on Quora.

The answer, like lawyers tend to say, is: “It depends.”

Not knowing what you do for a living, let’s assume that your LinkedIn profile is typical, meaning that it reflects the image of a corporate professional.

Would your boss, or a prospective employer, think badly of you for promoting your passion for beer?

Traditional product branding says that you should focus on your unique selling proposition fairly single-mindedly. Your goal is to create a space in the customer’s mind dedicated to your brand so that when they want to purchase something like it, they shortcut all alternatives and go straight to you.

So from a product branding point of view, putting a personal beer account on your professional profile is distracting. It tells an employer that you’re not totally focused on the encyclopedic and ever-evolving knowledge, skills and abilities required to do your valuable type of job.

However, people are not products, and appl…