What’s the Future of Government Communications? Let’s Prognosticate.

Writer/editor guy becomes web guy. Then what?

I lead internal comm. at my agency. In February, I was asked to also take on leading our web and social media team after its former lead stepped down from supervision. And we didn’t (and still don’t) have the budget to hire someone else. Having a decent grasp of web content, but being largely ignorant of design, programming, and policy, of course I said “Yeah, I’ll do it!”

Internal comm. and web and social media aren’t quite cabernet and filet mignon when it comes to being managed together. One is concerned with an audience, and the other is a comm. medium and construct. And trying to balance the often-disparate needs of each function was, at times, a little schizophrenic (fortunately, I did have an excellent former web and social media lead on my team, and a great team all around).

I use past tense because this team is now under the supervision of the head of our citizen and partner outreach team, who used to head — ready for this? — the internal and web/socmed teams together. Some define insanity as repeating the same … never mind.

This and other concerns about our office structure and workload, as well as a murky budget outlook, have us reconsidering our form and focus, and discussing/debating what we should look in the future.

Is this the new normal?

Maybe we are crazy, but I’d argue that much of this is just the nature of organizations: Personnel changes happen, offices struggle with identity, and everyone deals with tough budgets. Comm. shops, however, are often the first cut when budgets get the squeeze, especially in the private sector. In case you hadn’t noticed, Feds are being squeezed.

That means that comm. shops (and others), if they haven’t already, better get serious about figuring out who they should be and what they should be spending their time on. As budgets tighten, we need to get sharper.

With these things in mind, let’s consider some questions about the common components of a comm. office and where they might be headed to not just survive, but serve our mission and citizens even more effectively:

Will the term “public affairs” go away or change meaning now that we’re expected to interact directly with the public? What will it look like to work with the news media, then?

Are we still going to need formal social media teams? Twitter, Facebook, and other popular tools are so ubiquitous — will we need socmed specialists to research, strategize, and implement, or will these activites just be a part of audience-based communicators’ portfolio?

Will face-to-face interactions still largely drive relationships with Congress
(or other flavors of representative gov’t), or will austerity demand increased use of mobile and tele/webcon tools? Consider how many new reps. there are in the House — are they employing social tools at a greater rate? Will their successors do even more? Will we need to spend more time with them, not less?

How will comms. help senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment? Will we see less ghost writing/communicating on behalf of execs for internal comm.? Will we see less memos and other junk in favor of consolidated and prioritized info based on roles and interests? And how long before the divide between internal and public web content and social tool expectations become almost non-existent?

How seriously will we take measurement — does it get folded into the communicator’s portfolio or does it require the full-time attention of at least one person?

Should content delivery constructs that require skilled development — web, multimedia, graphic design — be folded together into a single entity, or are they inherently different? And what parts of web dev. and web governance should lie with comm. shops?

What about writing and editing? Do we assume that a public affairs specialist, for example, is well-trained in these skills, or do they warrant a separate and formal activity? And how do we need to change our perspective on what it means to publish?

Are comm. shops going to head up efforts to provide info in languages other than English?

Is customer service inherently a comm. function? It’s not necessarily about delivering messages, but can be a mass outreach activity.

Finally, which of these activities are most important for gov’t comm. offices now and going forward? Which can go away or be consolidated? Does this depend on your mission, or are there activities and skills that every comm. office should include? Also, what did I miss?

I have some thoughts, but I’d rather hear from you — where do you think gov’t comm. is headed? Take one of these comm. roles, above, or any other you like and play prognosticator via your own GovLoop blog post. Or build a nice list of links to GovLoop posts and other resources that have already covered this.

Maybe we can build a prophetic little compendium on where this train is going and get a head start on the next State of Government Communications.

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It is kind of crazy – you look at that list and my first reaction is that’s a lot of work and need a big, smart team. Knowing that more staff is probably not going to happen, I’d bet on automation – the more you can do things once and replicate in many channels. Also on measurement, the easier you can find quick metrics across channels that are meaningful (nobody has time to spent 20 hours a week building and using the metrics).

With proliferation of channels and lack of time, I think it may force comm professionals to really prioritize where they are getting the biggest ROI

Dave Hebert

That’s really it, Steve: It’s better to do a few things really well than to do a bunch of them poorly. I’m going to keep my mouth shut on what I think those few things might be for govt comms. until others comment (or don’t).

And I agree that automation and syndication are huge, especially if they are coupled with tools that support mutual awareness — a comm. shop will be much more effective if its people are aware of what each other is up to and where/how they can work together.

Corey McCarren

I’m just now kind of breaking into the communications field as a young professional, and I can only imagine what it was like before the Internet. On top of actual comm skills you’re expected to have technical skills like Photoshop (which luckily I am fairly experienced with) and HTML. I imagine comm professionals used to not be expected to be great painters as well before the Internet!

Dannielle Blumenthal

Must be technical. Must be versatile. Must work well under pressure. Must be resourceful. Must not worship words but welcome video, photography, design, multimedia of all kinds. Must constantly learn. Must have amazing project management skills and be a true team player.

Must get coffee twice a day because the job is always two or three jobs in one.


Coffee twice a day 🙂 How about 2x a day and then afternoon tea to keep it going…

Mobile huge – most important to me on mobile is that have to optimize your messaging for mobile. Also optimize your asks of folks

Dave Hebert

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Corey, you’re certainly right that the digital/visual responsibilities of gov’t comm. are relatively new, though graphic design in comm. is certainly not new, and in many ways may not be the art form it once was. And imagine how much harder you had to work to pitch a story to the news media when they were your only hope of true mass comm.

Dannielle, your comments support one line of thinking we’ve agreed on in my shop: We have to become generalists who can identify a big picture, long-term message, sniff out a good story that supports that message, produce video that tells that story, and have digital conversations with people who want to know more.

That being said, I think strong writing will still be a demanded skill — not in the sense that commits a lot of over-eloquence to the page (we’re not writing novels here) but in the ability to tell a story in whatever form (the term “storytelling” could be applied here, but I think that gets misconstrued as not being the refined skill that it is).

And David and Steve’s mobile points only underscore that, I think — the ability to write great headlines is even more valuable in digital comm. than it was in print. Tweets, Facebook status updates, YouTube titles — they’re all headlines. Even visual comm. should be thought of this way: What imagery will immediately tell someone why they should pay attention to this? Compelling. Concise. From yes-that’s-what-I-need to I-didn’t-even-know-that-existed.

So there are two of the three legs I see gov’t comm. sitting on going forward: writing/storytelling and digital/multimedia competence. The third? Measurement. Web metrics. Polling. Listening sessions. Simple conversations. You’ve got set goals you can measure, and you’ve got be able and willing to adjust your strategy when your audiences tell you to.

Ori Hoffer

Dave – you’re absolutely right with the concept of storytelling being the direction of the future (and the present). The heart of a story is the ability to connect with people – whether it’s a reporter or any visitor to your site – you need to reach them and tell them why what your agency is doing is important.

In the end it’s all about the message – it doesn’t matter if it comes via press release, tweet, video, or Facebook post.

Dave Hebert

Whoops — I just deleted someone else’s comment accidentally. No idea I had that power; anyone know how to undo that? My apologies …