10 Rules that Federal Communicators Need to Remember


Through the last 11 weeks I’ve shared federal communications best practices, tips and tricks that I hope have been useful as you navigate your career in government communications. This last post summarizes what I’ve learned and leaves you with 10 steps you can take to better serve federal customers and support your agency’s mission every day.

  1. Try focusing on customers you don’t normally focus on

I care deeply about reaching those audiences that we tend to lose sight of, most of whom don’t read the Federal Register. Always consider those people who aren’t already connected to federal agencies and probably wouldn’t think to reach out to us but could really benefit from our services. And always remember that it’s your job to make sure you’re reaching out beyond the usual suspects and that you’re constantly spreading that message throughout your agency.

  1. Support your colleagues

I’m not just talking about your teammates in communications. Think about your agency’s subject matter experts, administrators, program officers and executives. You’re all in this together. You all have the same goal: the agency’s mission. Remind one another why you came to work for the government in the first place and celebrate your agency’s successes often.

  1. Turn to other communicators for resources and advice

If you want to try something new, there’s a good chance someone else may be able to offer guidance based on their experiences. And that can turn into a huge advantage for you. Also, reach out to your colleagues across agencies. There’s nobody better to bounce ideas off of or to help you think through something that may seem a bit risky. I’ve found DigitalGov, GovLoop and other online forums to be great places to turn for feedback, advice and camaraderie.

  1. Use your agency’s strengths

We’re all in the content creation business – in one way or another we have to wrap our work up into digestible content for the public. At the Census Bureau, we, of course, are all about the data. So, we focus on turning that data into tools our customers can use. But expertise varies across agencies. On its digital platforms, NASA, for example, uses stunning photography that draws in space buffs, school kids and policy wonks alike. The key is knowing how to tap into what your agency does best.

  1. Recognize who your audience is and what they’re interested in

This goes back to point four: knowing your strengths, because that’s why people will turn to your agency. People who follow the Census Bureau fall into several camps; some want in-depth tables and charts of our latest data, others want quick facts. It’s no surprise people turn to NASA for jaw-dropping pictures of space and thrilling news about the latest mission to, say, Mars or Jupiter. And NASA’s site is evidence that they really understand their audience.

Another great example is the Smithsonian Institution. They clearly project that they know who their audience is —  historians, tourists, educators, kids and their parents, researchers, and others. You see it in the navigation of their website. Instead of turning inward and projecting only what they work on, as many government agencies tend to do, the Smithsonian helps visitors explore their interests.

  1. Make as much information availableto your customers as possible

The Freedom of Information Act requires the federal government to satisfy inquiries from the public. And we’re required to post information that is frequently requested in the FOIA Reading Room. But why wait until the federally required number of people ask for something before making it easily available? As government communicators, we have data that tells us what the public is interested in, so why force people to file a FOIA request to get it? If the information can be publicly released, convince your agency to be as transparent as possible and make high-interest information available in an easy-to-find place on your website. Don’t wait for people to ask for it.

  1. Remember that employees are customers too

Employees carry out your mission, and it’s your job to keep them informed and engaged. You can do that by giving them a voice in changes, being clear in your communication and collaborating with employees across your organization. It’s tough to be a federal government employee these days. At the very least, recognize them and thank them for their service as often as possible.

  1. Don’t be afraid to take risks when it comes to communications

Whether it’s giving the message a lighthearted touch, jumping in on a news cycle or engaging with customers in real time on public channels, taking small risks can boost your communications efforts. The CDC’s “Zombie Preparedness Campaign” is a great example of a bold communications move that promoted a government mission that reached so many people. Remember, the best way to effectively take a risk is to make sure you can take it directly back to the agency’s mission.

  1. Build relationships with the “trusted intermediaries” who can help you reach customers

Congressional representatives, faith leaders, local policy makers, professional associations and journalists are resources you can turn to in your quest to reach a bigger audience. Know the needs of their constituents and respect their time by packaging the information to share in ways that will be most useful to them. For example, if you want a nonprofit network to help you announce a grant deadline, draft a tweet for their Twitter feed or write a sample newsletter article they can send out.

  1. Don’t forget that everything should lead back to your mission, every time

At the Census Bureau, our mission is to be a trusted source of information about people and the economy. In every part of communication, including the fonts and color palettes we choose, we’re thinking about how to convey who we are and what we do.

It’s been a pleasure sharing experiences from my career with all of you. I hope you’ve been able to get something out of my posts that you can try at your own agency. If you’d like any more information about the Census Bureau and the work that we do or have any other questions, leave a comment below.

Jeannie Shiffer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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