A Listening Session With Federal Communicators
On February 15, 2017 the Federal Communicators Network (FCN) Professional Standards Working Group held a discussion of issues related to federal communication standards. These notes are public domain; what follows is an edited version that highlights key issues.
The Importance of Standards
- Cost Savings: When asked if agencies had a lot of independent efforts underway without clear standards and lack of coordination, many hands were raised – “money goes one way and efficiency goes another way”
- Quality: The issue is quality of our work. If you're going to do a communication plan, the ideal one has these components. Budgets not expected to go up. Many have contractors, but no standards.
- Standards are not just nice things
- Standards are not “thou shalts”
- Standards are common starting points to tell you where you are starting from, and then you fill in the blanks
- Vast majority don't have anything consistent going on from agency to agency.
- Most said they don't know what their career path is.
- Most said metrics, we don't use that.
- Most said they don't have tools and standards that would help them do better job.
Without Standards, Communication Is Not A Well-Managed Function
- One of the hallmarks of effective communications is a “seat at the table” - part of decision making and sharing responsibility for results. Right now communicators in the civil service do not have a seat at the table.
- There are a huge variety of people charged with doing communications – federal employees (full- and part-time), term employees, contractors (onsite and offsite).
- The function is usually decentralized across agencies.
Government vs. Private-Sector Communication: Much More Complex
- More power struggles
- More pressure to respond to publics
- More legal constraints
- More media coverage
- Expertise dismissed; being told by leaders that they aren't going to “dictate how I do my job”
- Poor enforcement of existing standards within an agency
- Unclear standards from agency to agency
- Absent a code of conduct, subject to arbitrary orders from senior leadership and the threat of being called “insubordinate” if they refuse to do something unethical
- Backlash over bad news; e.g. news clips that are deemed “offensive”
- Communicators not seen as urgently needed as versus other professionals (e.g. lawyers)
- Internal audiences don't take seriously the need to know your audience through fact-based analysis rather than by personal impressions, gut instinct, etc.
- Substituting a newsletter for real communication strategy
- Professional development path as a government communicator unclear
- Trust issues stemming from politics (e.g. having the TV channels changed from CNN to FOX and back; put the agency TV on C-SPAN instead)
Standards or No Standards, These Approaches Work
- Neutral, fact-based information distribution
- Communication vehicles that target users, not leadership talking to themselves
- Hiring dedicated communicators
- Centralizing the communications function – not allowing individual offices to “do their own thing”
- Communication standards placed in individual performance plans
- Email delivery services for reaching a like-minded audience
- Social media for audience engagement
- Crowdsourcing and collaboration platforms
- Simple messages, broadcast widely with a link to more information (e.g. plasma TV monitors by the elevator with a link to fuller articles on the intranet)
All opinions my own.