I had a scheduled trip to Virginia Beach this weekend, but with the impending Tropical Storm Sandy coming up the coast I wanted to check out the forecast. I chuckled at what I found on the official National Weather Service site:
DESPITE A MODEST CLUSTER OF OUTLYING DETERMINISTIC SOLUTIONS AND ENSEMBLE MEMBERS FROM THE VARIOUS MODELING CENTERS, THE LION'S SHARE OF GUIDANCE INDICATES THAT THE CIRCULATION ASSOCIATED WITH HURRICANE SANDY WILL PASS CLOSE ENOUGH TO THE AMPLIFYING POLAR TROUGH OVER THE EASTERN UNITED STATES TO BECOME INCORPORATED INTO A HYBRID VORTEX OVER THE MID ATLANTIC AND NORTHEAST NEXT TUESDAY. THE HIGH DEGREE OF BLOCKING FROM EASTERN NORTH AMERICA ACROSS THE ENTIRE ATLANTIC BASIN IS EXPECTED TO ALLOW THIS UNUSUAL MERGER TO TAKE PLACE, AND ONCE THE COMBINED GYRE MATERIALIZES, IT SHOULD SETTLE BACK TOWARD THE INTERIOR NORTHEAST THROUGH HALLOWEEN, INVITING PERHAPS A GHOULISH NICKNAME FOR THE CYCLONE ALONG THE LINES OF "FRANKENSTORM", AN ALLUSION TO MARY SHELLEY'S GOTHIC CREATURE OF SYNTHESIZED ELEMENTS.
While it's still got a few words that don't show in day-to-day communication and the CAPS is driving me crazy, it's generally got a breezy tone that makes it easy to read. In light of the mandate for plain language, it was nice to read something like this from a government source.
What other examples of fun, easy-to-ready government news / information have you seen?
Is it okay for government communicators to have a little fun?
This is a really good question. I think the NWS knows its audience pretty well and understands that it's not communicating directly to the public, but to fellow meteorologists and members of the media who relay their messages to the public. This is evident not only because of the subtle humor at the end, but in the heavy weather jargon throughout. If you have a specific audience, I think it's fine to joke around a bit.
However, government communicators seeking to reach the general public need to be very careful with humor. Jokes online can be hard to pull off, particularly when coming from official organizations. It risks detracting from the message, a risk not worth taking in emergency situations.
There's also an accessibility concern. Members of the public with cognitive disabilities may not be able to interpret sarcasm or puns, leading to confusion and misunderstanding.
That said, it's also important for government communicators to sound human. Focusing on plain language, maintaining a friendly tone, speaking in the first person plural, and directly addressing readers as "you" can go a long way.
Good points, Jed. It sounds like the individual(s) over at NWS have been emboldened by the initial reaction to the use of more informal communication and might be taking it a step too far with a couple of these:
SOME IMPORTANT NOTES...
1. IF YOU ARE BEING ASKED TO EVACUATE A COASTAL LOCATION BY STATE
AND LOCAL OFFICIALS, PLEASE DO SO.
2. IF YOU ARE RELUCTANT TO EVACUATE, AND YOU KNOW SOMEONE WHO RODE
OUT THE `62 STORM ON THE BARRIER ISLANDS, ASK THEM IF THEY COULD DO
3. IF YOU ARE RELUCTANT, THINK ABOUT YOUR LOVED ONES, THINK ABOUT
THE EMERGENCY RESPONDERS WHO WILL BE UNABLE TO REACH YOU WHEN YOU
MAKE THE PANICKED PHONE CALL TO BE RESCUED, THINK ABOUT THE
RESCUE/RECOVERY TEAMS WHO WILL RESCUE YOU IF YOU ARE INJURED OR
RECOVER YOUR REMAINS IF YOU DO NOT SURVIVE.
4. SANDY IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS STORM. THERE WILL BE MAJOR
PROPERTY DAMAGE, INJURIES ARE PROBABLY UNAVOIDABLE, BUT THE GOAL IS
5. IF YOU THINK THE STORM IS OVER-HYPED AND EXAGGERATED, PLEASE ERR
ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION.
WE WISH EVERYONE IN HARMS WAY ALL THE BEST. STAY SAFE!
I definitely think that government communicators could and should have fun. It helps the public know that there is usually a voice (i.e., an actual person) behind the messages. That goes a long way in building relationships. BUT, as Jed says, you have to know your audience. And there's definitely a time and a place. For the current fungal meningitis is we're dealing with at work, I would certainly make sure to keep the messages serious. But naming a storm and comparing it to a gothic novel? I think that's fine and appropriate.
For the record, I was preparing to tweet some links to our webpages about emergency preparedness and I decided to do a quick look at trending tags of #sandy and #frankenstorm. While very popular, there were a few people tweeting that they found the name disrespectful due to the potential damage that the storm can cause and the lives that have already been lost. So that's a consideration. For the record, I chose to still use #frankenstorm, as well as #sandy, because it is still trending heavily and might help people find our info.
Sure it is fine if the government has a little fun as long as it gets its message across. I think it makes a more personal connection to the public and it might mean a better understanding of the problem.
Sometimes government communications need to be bold. During the August storms, NJ Governor Christie said "Get the hell off the beach! We're not coming back for you!" Spot on Governor, and an excellent investment in limited State resources. It's difficult to ponder the selfishness and irresponsibility of many who tried to ride out Sandy.
It's always funny until public opinion loses their high.
I ran the National Weather Service example text through our StyleWriter plain English editing software and it threw it out and rated it for several measures as Dreadful, Unreadable and Very Difficult. Was it a spoof?
Designer of StyleWriter