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.

About

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, www.AllThingsBrand.com and www.DannielleBlumenthal.com, and she frequently answers questions on Quora. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own.