earsWhen I imagined the future of government communications, I would envision morning meetings, where the comms team (ha!) gets together, each over their own personal blend of Starbucks or locally-sourced coffee (double ha!), discusses what news is breaking, reviews where the competitors are and what their goals might be, then the team lead blesses the talking points for the day and everyone dashes off to their well-appointed, yet obviously industriously worked-in offices (triple ha!).

Aside from the fact that I obviously dream about some fantasy-land, there’s more wrong with that statement than is obvious. You see, I talked about our competitors and how my fantasy comms team would defeat them gloriously, just in time for happy hour. While it’s obvious that very few folks in government communications are concerned with our competition, and it’s even more obvious that our competitors number more than most of us can count to, that’s not the problem. You see, our biggest problem isn’t losing the battle of our public’s minds and action to some nefarious industry or trade group, it’s losing that battle because no one’s heard us. It’s losing because we’ve become irrelevant. It’s that we’re not number three or four on our public’s priority list, it’s that we’re number 100, or 1,000.

A consultant that I follow on Twitter, Steve Woodruff, had a brilliant post on exactly this topic a couple of weeks ago, and I just couldn’t shake how his message, while crafted very explicitly for the consulting world rang just as true–maybe more so–for government communicators.

[Y]our biggest competition isn’t the competition. It’s the noise in your client or prospect’s mind. It’s the boss – the kids – the schedule – the office politics – the latest health problem – the job search – the fantasy football league – tomorrow’s big presentation – the upcoming vacation – the overloaded e-mail inbox.

Don’t believe me? Monitor what’s coursing through you brain for the next 2 minutes. See what people who are fighting for your attention are up against?

Now I know I just said that we don’t care about the competition, so you’re thinking, “how does this relate to us?” It relates because we’re worse than those consultants that are so concerned with what other consultants are doing. We’re worse because we (to a large degree) still think that our messaging is the only game in town. That we speak and, as we’re the government, people should listen. We shout into that ether with full faith and belief that our message resonates above all other messages. But it doesn’t work like that.

Want to know how I know? Go back to that little two-minute exercise Steve had you do. Now think about the last message you published for work. Where did the action that message implored you to undertake rank in your two-minute ordering of life? Was it one or two? Three or four? Or more like 100 or 1,000?

And the cacophony of life is only increasing. More social networks, both in meat-space and cyberspace, more responsibilities, more deadlines, higher productivity, fewer financial cushions. You know what we need to be concerned with?

The signal-to-noise ratio. How do we put forth such a clear signal that we stand out in the minds of our clients?

So, how do YOU do it?

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Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Andy, I’ll take that question being the nice guy I am.

Jim, no offense to the consultant you cite, but I think his message is a bit overly simplistic. Therefore, perhaps my answer will be as well.

How do you do it?

1) Micro-target issues to audiences to whom those issues are a priority and not just noise (“a one or two”).

2) Be proactive and persistent. Think big picture of how your agency/organization can connect — literally via new digital platforms (including social media), in addition to mobile technology, and; figuratively through the power of clear, concise and direct strategic messaging.

3) Then strategically craft your message to insure maximum citizen engagement with that target audience. Make sure you put a priority on transparency and customer service along the way. As a first resort, you want to engage with your audience. At a minimum you want them to receive and ponder your message for whatever action you would like them to take.

4) Then periodically measure your ROI and make adjustments accordingly until you nail it.

Anything to add, Andy or Jim?

Profile Photo Ramona Winkelbauer

Question for David, Jim or Andy:

How do you target to the audience that, due to previous interactions with your Agency, is the pictured constituent with their fingers in their ears, saying “I won’t listen to what you’re saying?”

I.e., Do we only message to the willing or don’t we still need to communicate to a larger audience?

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

We have plenty of competition.

–Those who want to do our jobs because communication is “not a real specialty” and “anyone can do it.”

–Those who want to build an empire out of the communication function by spending as much as possible and in the flashiest way possible am of course with the most staff, under which system everything goes through them.

–Those who want to edit everything they see, just because they can, then have an agency and interagency cast of thousands review it, to “coordinate,” and generally hem and haw and delay endlessly until nobody cares anymore

–Those who kill every creative idea as if by some reflex — but make it sound like a reasonable and real excuse every time

— Finally those who hold information that rightfully belongs to the public, as if it were their own personal treasure trove – and when you advocate to make that information easy to use and accessible, engaging and plain English (eg the law) tell you “that’s not the way we do things around here”.

Profile Photo Jim Garrow

Wow, what a great discussion! David, you are right on. And I think that your second point is even more right on-er! So much of government communications is tied to campaigns, time-limited outreach efforts with definite start and stop times, unfortunately most of our audiences don’t just sit around waiting for our messages. They live their lives and if they don’t get our messages when they’re ready, they do use them.

Profile Photo Jim Garrow

Ramona: that’s a great question. I believe that the biggest reason people react like that to government communication is because they’ve been burned before. It’s our job to not only do our messaging, but also to restore trust in government messaging. We need to keep messaging and hope that our newfound trustworthiness cracks through the barrier. (And I think that easier today than ever before, considering how much the public depends on peer recommendations via social media these days. We don’t have to specifically get that person, just the people they trust.)

Profile Photo Jim Garrow

Holy smokes Dannielle, I’ve dealt with every single one of them. These are real problems that go way beyond the scope of this post. In fact, you’ve inspired me to write about some of them. Thanks!