How You Can Excel in Public Sector Communications

Bob Slydell: You see, what we’re actually trying to do here is we’re trying to get a feel for how people spend their day at work… so, if you would, would you walk us through a typical day, for you?

Peter Gibbons: Yeah.

Bob Slydell: Great.

Peter Gibbons: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late, ah, I use the side door – that way Lumbergh can’t see me, heh heh – and, uh, after that I just sorta space out for about an hour.

Bob Slydell: Da-uh? Space out?

Peter Gibbons: Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.

For all of the Office Space fans out there, I sure hope this doesn’t sound like your typical work day. If it does, then it may be time to start looking for another career outside of government.

I’ve held many different posts during my 8+ years as a federal employee, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my moving around, it’s that public sector communication styles and preferences vary from agency and department.

Developing a strategy for how to handle email, in-person meetings, conducting presentations, leading teleconferences, managing vendors and conducting outreach – all are iterative techniques, constantly evolving.

Great public sector communication starts with you

It requires the ability to be a “jack of all trades.” But, just when you thought you had mastered a particular style or method, something happens. Suddenly, it all gets thrown out of the window and you have to start again from scratch. Yes, it can be frustrating indeed, but here are some suggestions that will help you succeed and stay on top of your game:

Know your principals inside and out.

We often glaze over those messages that are broadcasted out to the entire department. While it’s tempting to hit the delete button and move on, there’s actually quite a bit of intrinsic value to these. If the messages are coming from your principal or higher echelon executive (or their designated writer), take some time to read them.

You’ll soon become familiar with their style and voice…how they make these messages their own. That’s a particularly valuable skill set that will help you if you’re ever asked to draft a message on their behalf. Learn who these folks are. Read about them to discover their interests, what it is they care about, and more importantly, what makes them tick.

There is no devil in the details.

We come to expect that we’ll be given all the details for an assignment up front. Public sector communications are far from cookie-cutter. As my supervisor has been known to say when tasking me with a new assignment, “Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat.”

That’s a code we use that quite literally means there’s nothing to go on here but use your best judgment and resourcefulness to get it done. It helps to establish a network of resources and have them on speed dial so you can find the puzzle pieces and figure out how to put them together to obtain the desired result.

Brevity is key.

Think “BLUF,” bottom line up front. One or two sentences at the beginning of a proposal or project briefing is all you need to convey the key purpose to the most senior stakeholders. SES officials, especially, do not have the time to read through a comprehensive write up, novel as it may be. In fact, many executives are often pulling 60-70 hour work weeks.

You’re much more likely to get a response (or what it is you truly want) by keeping formal briefings to 3/4 of one page or less. For email, I recommend even less.

Take the initiative.

Remember, you were hired because something about you stood out to those who were a part of the interview panel. They picked you. My current supervisor taught me a great lesson – you always need a plan A, B, C, and maybe even D.

Position yourself as the solution to your organization’s challenges. Harness that innate creativity of yours and put it to good use. Do the heavy lifting of research and present your team with options to choose from. It’s going to look great on your resume.

They don’t know what they don’t know.

You may find yourself presented with some challenges along the way. Assume they (who you’re communicating with) know nothing – in fact, don’t even think about assuming. That’s a quick way to undermine your credibility, or worse, lose face with your superiors.

Find a way to explain things in a way that’s meaningful to your audience. It’s often a delicate dance of simplification while striving to avoid making your audience feel ignorant.

Don’t leave ‘em hanging.

If you have to, make yourself calendar appointments to automatically pop up, reminding you to return a customer email or submit a report before the deadline. Always follow up promptly when you receive emails or missed phone calls. Sending someone an email acknowledging receipt can go a long way even if you don’t have the time to fully respond then and there. Flag that message so you know to come back to it when you have more time.

Above all else, be confident, present boldly and be kind. Take every back slam as a push forward, learn to accept criticism (feedback is a gift) and be adaptable to change.

Blake Scates  is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Catherine Andrews

Love the idea of putting on a Sherlock Holmes hat! Do you have any tips to share for how somebody can increase and develop their resourcefulness?

Blake Scates

Hi, Catherine – thanks for stopping by! You pose a great question. One of the ways I’ve gotten ahead of the curve is to always volunteer for projects or assignments that are a bit out of my comfort zone or area of expertise. You have an opportunity to network and meet new individuals along the way. Forming those professional relationships will help enhance your personal stock value and better position yourself as the go-to person in the office. Good luck!