In my own personal capacity as a citizen and as a communication professional, I am frequently critical of the federal government’s use and misuse of communication tools.
As a federal communicator — and please note that all opinions expressed here are my own — I have spent the better part of my career trying to make things better. Not just on my own, but also with many intrepid others. There are in fact numerous mechanisms, from meetings to listservs to free training sessions to videos, that enable us to improve.
Most recently, in 2016, a group of us culminated a year-long project and published “Advancing Federal Communications: The Case for Professional Standards of Practice” (executive summary here). The paper argues that in the absence of clear and consistent professional standards and uniform government practice, as exemplified by the UK for example, we will continue to see well-trained professionals hampered in their efforts. No matter how stellar a performer you are within a specific agency, your work needs to be set against a much larger context set forth by the government itself, one which explains to the public why your work is vitally important and not a waste of money.
Just yesterday, January 10, 2017, the Daily Caller published an article called “Taxpayers Spend Thousands On Poorly Used Gov’t Public Relations Jobs.” It made reference to “Government PR,” Item #14 in Sen. Jeff Flake’s recently published “Wastebook,” in which he excoriates the government for spending so much money on advertising and public relations contracts. The U.S. Government Accountability Office published its own report in September 2016.
In his book documenting government waste, Senator Flake asks a very valid question:
So what does it say when more than $1.4 billion is spent every year promoting federal agencies and services but trust and confidence in the government have plummeted?
In response to his own question, Flake suggests that “a good product sells itself” and recommends the following:
“Federal agencies could improve their public relations at no cost whatsoever by simply conducting themselves efficiently and effectively rather than misspending taxpayer dollars on questionable and unnecessary projects and activities that will inevitably end up in Wastebook.”
Reading this, I have to shake my head and wonder at the logic of this argument. It is not a waste of money to hire federal communicators and deploy them to explain what the government is doing. Far from it: I’m on social media every single day, and I can see the public reacting to what the government says (and doesn’t say).
They see, for example, that the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act was incorporated into the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, and they don’t understand what it is or what it means, and it is into that vaccuum that many suspicions naturally fall.
So if you want to increase trust between the public and the government, of course you should be telling people, in clear and objective terms, what’s going on. Tell them what you’re required to tell them. Answer their questions. Make it easy to understand and not dense. Don’t hide information. Don’t complexify it. Go where the citizens are – on social media. All of that.
Most of the money is being spent on advertising and PR contracts. They are not necessary if you have a great team of government people who are empowered to do their jobs.
Important note and disclaimer: As always, I do not represent any individual agency, group of agencies, or the government as a whole in my personal writings. Also obviously, as a federal communicator I am going to be personally biased towards the perpetuation of my own profession; from that perspective please take what I say with a grain of salt.