Government’s Communication Challenge or Opportunity?

By Megan Bensatte

Communicating with the Public: A challenge for government

If you work in government communications, you know that we often have a hard time getting our message across to the masses. While our concepts start off simple enough, the end product is weighed down with technical jargon, lawyer-like speak and far too many words.

Why is it so hard for a government agency to communicate with the public?

Can you hear me now?

There are many reasons government finds it difficult to put out communications. There are the fears:

  • fear of being misrepresented or misquoted in the press,
  • fear of unintentionally creating offense,
  • fear that the public won’t understand or support the message.

The thing is, if you let someone else lead the conversation, you often spend more time defending yourself than selling your original message. Then there’s the “cover all your bases” conundrum. In an effort to be fully accurate, government offices may use a single communications vehicle (for example, a fact sheet or a webpage) to address every “what if” about a topic. It’s far more efficient to introduce your message and leave the niche questions to stakeholder outreach. And of course, government struggles with the so often overuse of jargon, or as I like to call it, gobbledygook. (Think “sequestration.” We couldn’t have just called it, “spending cuts?”)

It can be done

Throughout President Obama’s first term in office, the White House made a strong effort to connect with the public. You saw it across the country as federal agencies began “having a conversation” with folks, often through roundtable discussions, town hall meetings and Twitter chats.

(Just Google your favorite service-oriented government agency and the word “conversation” to see what I mean.) Not only did high level government officials become more accessible, they spoke to people like they were speaking among friends, with language that wasn’t bogged down with government acronyms or complex terminology. It was a grassroots approach to connecting with Joe and Susie America and a good model for communicators in government to follow today.

Moving forward

Time for the takeaways. How can we better communicate with the public? Here are some good reminders of essential communication practices to ensure the public hears what we have to say.

1. Be transparent. Transparency improves trust, increases dialogue and reduces labor-intensive requests like FOIAs. Sometimes people may not like what you have to say, but they’ll respect you for being up front about it, and that matters.

2. Remember your audience. It’s easy to criticize something if you can’t see how it applies to you. One way to do this is to use examples. A good example can stick with people for a long time. (For example, the Affordable Care Act sounded overwhelming when we first heard about it. But when people learned more about the medical benefits they could receive as a result, support for the Act grew and now over 2 million individuals are enrolled, 30 percent of those being under the age of 35.)

3. Avoid jargon. Really, just use regular words. A great resource is, where you can find everything from your agency’s writing requirements to training resources to tip sheets on how to shorten those overly verbose (I mean, wordy) sentences.

I challenge all of you out there in government communication to make a real effort at “having a conversation with the public this week. Chop down those sentences, give some examples and see what happens. Let me know how it goes.

Reposted from the ASPA blog.

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