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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. 
What Standards Are & Are Not
  • 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 
What Happens Without Standards (2016 FCN Survey)
  • 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 
Typical Problems Government Communicators Face
  • 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 
Communication Mechanisms Currently Known To Be Effective
  • 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) 
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All opinions my own.

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