Incidents like the TSA’s implementation of pat-downs and the Federal government’s response to the Gulf Oil Spill demonstrates that the current methods of government communication aren’t working as well as they did in the past. It used to be that citizens would get most of their information from network news shows, major national magazines and newspapers, and the local newspaper. There were few sources of news that reported on and criticized government actions. A government communicator could get their story out virtually unscathed and other than letters to the editor and letters to their congressperson the public had limited means to question the government story.
Then there was the Internet. Then the web. And now, social networking. Many more ways for the public to comment on government stories and have as broad a reach as the government and major news organizations. Today anyone with a smartphone is an on-the-scene reporter with the potential to reach millions. Yet, except for a few exceptions such as NASA, government communicators seem to still communicate as they did before the Internet. They may use Facebook and Twitter but communicators still broadcast messages when they should be starting conversations.
To understand the new communication world of social networking we need to think in terms of enthymematic communication. An enthymeme is unspoken or assumed premise that we supply while trying to understand a message. To repeat an example by Norton and Brenders, if you see a t-shirt worn by a pregnant women that has an arrow pointing down with the words ‘Fifth Female US President” then your mind will supply several enthymemes. First, there will be four female US Presidents in that child’s lifetime. Second, this child will be female and third will have the ambition and skill to become a US President. As a normal part of our communication we are constantly supplying enthymemes based on our store of knowledge about the world.
What does this mean for the government communicator? Think about the TSA pat-down example. TSA said that everyone at major airports had to go through a full-body scanner or have a pat-down because this would prevent terrorism. Immediately people had concerns and questions but instead of addressing these from the beginning, the TSA allowed other parties to supply the missing premises. Thus you had the “don’t touch my junk” guy, the numerous stories on Twitter and other sites about passengers being roughly treated during the pat-down, and widely-circulated photos [falsely] demonstrating how revealing the full body scans were. The TSA blog tried to say that these incidents didn’t happen but that message was quickly disproved with numerous YouTube videos and Facebook postings. TSA’s counter-message was too little, too late, and didn’t fit the new communication frame altered by other people’s enthymemes. Two lessons here: enthymemes frame your message and if you don’t supply the enthymemes then someone else will.
None of this should be surprising to experienced communicators. But I am constantly amazed at the kind of messages coming from the government and how the communicators seem to limit citizen engagement and don’t address the obvious questions that will arise. When I was working at GSA and supporting the President’s [Clinton] Y2K Date Change Commission, I helped manage the Native American Outreach effort. Our mission was to alert the Native American community about the potential effects of Y2K but not to unduly alarm the communities. We created some brochures, had officials on interview shows, and connected with the major Native American organizations. In creating the communication materials we would brainstorm the obvious questions that would arise and make sure we had good, well-researched answers so that we can counter the major misinformation floating around. It’s not easy and I was surprised at some of the questions people came up with. But I felt we were successful because I tried to anticipate the common enthymemes that people would have and make sure we framed the message to take advantage of those enthymemes.
Government communicators face a great deal of competition in enthymematic communication as they attempt to engage the public through social networking technologies. Government has to be more open because that builds trust and trust is the first step in building the relationships needed for citizen engagement. I’ve only provided a bare summary of Norton and Brender’s theory and I highly encourage government communicators to read the entire book and learn their 22 laws of interaction. The goal is to become an expert enthymematic communicator with the ability to shape the communication frame with the appropriate kind of enthymemes to get your message out as you intended.
Norton, R., & Brenders, D. (1996). Communication and consequences: Laws of interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.