When Is Experimenting Worth the Risk? When It’s Tied to Your Mission


Risk-taking may seem a bit too, well, risky, for government communicators. Our job is to connect people with information, not create a public relations problem for our agency. The last thing we want to do is publish content focused on something other than our mission.

But expectations have shifted over the past decade, and reaching customers today means doing so in a very public way in real time, often on Twitter or Facebook. And that feels risky to many of us. We’re more comfortable in response mode, waiting to hear from people who need our services.

To connect with your customers, it’s important to get out of your comfort zone. Now, I’m not advising you to do anything foolhardy. I’m talking about using communications tactics that might feel a bit risky and experimental.

We certainly don’t experiment without purpose at the Census Bureau. We’ve taken three types of risks in our communication: Giving messaging a lighthearted touch, jumping in on a news cycle, and conversing with customers in real time on public channels. We took these risks on our customers’ home turf, with the aim of engaging with them and connecting them to Census Bureau data and information that is relevant to their lives.

If you’re going to give these strategies a shot, start with the goal of successfully connecting your customers to your organization’s mission, assets and objectives. And be aware that there’s always the possibility things won’t work out exactly as planned; perhaps a lighthearted tweet falls flat or a customer criticizes your agency in a social media chat. But if you can explain to others at your agency that the experiment was mission-focused, you’ll be able to make the case that the risk was worth taking regardless of outcome — and the next thing you try might work better.

Here are four mini case studies to give you insight into how federal agencies can embrace experimentation and find messages that resonate with our customers:

End of the World as We Know It

In 2011, our friends at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took advantage of the endless pop-culture fascination with zombies (see: “The Walking Dead,” “Plants vs. Zombies,” “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) to add some life to their emergency preparedness campaign. If people could prepare for a zombie apocalypse, then they could prepare for a large-scale emergency. The campaign grabbed people’s attention and connected them to a vital component of the CDC’s mission: National preparedness for emergencies. They received some criticism, but at the end of the day they reminded a lot of people about contingency planning and preparedness. I call that a win on behalf of customers.

Choose Your Bracket

For millions of Americans, March means college basketball and using March Madness brackets to predict who’ll win the college championship. During the tournament, we’ve used our Population Bracketology to bring more customers to our population clock, challenging them to name the cities and states with the largest populations.

The bracketology has turned into a fun way to interact with and inform our customers, while also sticking to our mission: Deliver data to the public. (Which city do you think has the largest population? Cincinnati or Chicago? Go to the bracket to find out if you’re right!)

This Just In

Jumping on a news cycle can get your agency in the public eye, but you have to choose the right stories to latch on to. This spring, people in the Washington, D.C., area, including Census Bureau staff, were glued to the news of a sudden closure of the Washington, D.C. region’s Metro system. The subway network’s unprecedented all-day shutdown for inspections in March affected hundreds of thousands of commuters.

We knew the Census Bureau’s data about commuting and the number of people potentially affected would be useful to many audiences. So we tweeted links to our commuting data and used the Twitter hashtag #Metroshutdown. This strategy was a great way to get our customers engaged with us, and each other, about our data.

Out in the Open

It’s one thing to address customer feedback in an email or a one-on-one conversation. It’s a complete other thing to respond to that feedback on a public stage, like Twitter, Facebook or the online forum Reddit. Remember that you are there to connect people with information and provide customer service. Stay focused and don’t get drawn into off-topic conversations. You might have to dodge a few insults, but in the end, your customers are heard and you might get new input about your organization.

Taking what can feel like huge risks in your communication with customers can have big payoffs. But, figuring out what experiments could work for your agency can take practice, which is why I recommend tapping resources outside of your agency and seeing how others do things. One of my favorite resources for learning from my peers is the Federal SocialGov Community, which is a great listerv for federal employees. It’s a safe place to bounce ideas off of like-minded people who have similar goals. But, always remember, whether you’re infusing humor into your messaging, taking a bit of an unexpected approach or conversing in real time, every risk you take should always lead back to the ultimate goal: your mission.

Jeannie Shiffer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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