You Tell Me: What Is Publishing, and How Seriously Should We Take It?

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This topic contains 17 replies, has 10 voices, and was last updated by  Peg Hosky 7 years, 11 months ago.

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  • #177870

    Dave Hebert

    This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network. No endorsement expressed or implied.

    Allow yourself to imagine the following scenario playing out at a government agency:

    Agency’s comm. shop gets a call from media outlets interested in new articles about high-profile research done by experts from said agency and posted on the websites of legitimate but non-government journals. Here’s what the ensuing conversation at the agency might look like:

    Comm. shop, caught completely unaware by publication of said reports, to experts in question: “Hey, guys — would you mind giving us a heads up when you publish stuff like this?”

    Experts: “No, no — it’s not published. They just posted it on their website, and we haven’t announced it in a release or anything. It’s a soft launch.”

    Comm. shop: “Oh, good. In that case, I’ll just tell the reporters to pretend it’s not published, too. Arrghhhhh!”

    There really isn’t such thing as a soft launch on the web anymore. Once you put something on a public site, Google will find it — Google finds EVERYTHING. And all it takes is one tweet for everything to blow up.

    Now imagine a flawed press release going out via RSS feed, and, upon recognition of the flaws, inquiries being made to agency web staff as to whether a new release could go out in place of the old one.

    No. It can’t. It’s published.

    Which brings us to the issue at hand: What actually does qualify as publishing these days at a government agency?

    We certainly take print products (which are and should be getting more and more precious) very seriously as publications, as we do the digital permutations thereof. If you’ve ever been involved with the creation of a major info product with facts to be checked and templates to be adhered to, you know what a monstrous maneuver of meticulousness they are. Ask the folks at the Census Bureau what putting those results together is like.

    But what about everything else? Inside our agency cultures, we might draw lines between major data products, press releases, web content, and Facebook updates like a teacher does between the good kids, the slackers, and the class clowns, and then use those distinctions to decide what most deserves our attention.

    The public, however, has no use for such distinctions, nor should they. If a government agency says it, it should be credible and accurate. — what else are we here for? The public also expects government to serve in the modes in which its people operate. That’s why we create useful websites and Instagram accounts.

    And that same public that expects to trust us wants our stuff now, Now, NOW. Where’s the smart line between speed and accuracy? The New York Times ran a piece on getting it first vs. getting in right, in which a lifelong reader was quoted as saying she lost her trust in the Old Gray Lady after the paper got facts about the Newtown shooting wrong.

    But the New York Times has an army of people dedicated to info gathering (reporters) and accuracy (editors). If they screw up now and then, can’t we?

    Certainly during rapidly developing situations (military actions, natural disasters), we can be excused for some slip-ups, right?

    A tweet shouldn’t receive the same level of review as a major scientific study, should it?

    But that tweet should be just as reliable, shouldn’t it?

    Do we need to just slow down sometimes, even behind the pace of society, to make sure we get things right?

    When you open your mouth as a representative of the government, are you publishing?

    You tell me: What does it mean to publish, and how seriously should we take it?


    If you are interested in or passionate about guiding government away from its print-based document fixation, please consider attending a free webinar on thinking paperless being hosted next Tuesday, Apr. 16, by FedInsider and Adobe.This event will be moderated by yours truly on behalf of the Federal Communicators Network.

    For best practices, training, networking, and other opportunities in federal communications, join the Federal Communicators Network.

  • #177904

    Peg Hosky

    Very timely discussion, Dave! This morning I received my customized headlines from the Washington Post, and this link leads to exactly what my first headline stated: Editor’s Note: This post was inadvertently published.

    How embarrassing for a world-class news publication to self-promote an inaccurate posting on their website — which immediately drew all eyes to view the error.

    Federal agency erroneous postings can result in impacts far greater than mere loss of face.

    thanks for initiating this discussion!


  • #177902

    Britt Ehrhardt

    That’s such a good point, Peg. The consequences can be great, and it’s going to happen more and more.

    More time pressure + more people with access to the Publish button on federal agency website content management systems = more mess-ups. There’s no way around it. Underscores the necessity of good process management, something we communications folks aren’t always great at. It’s going to be a culture change, to prepare for and respond to screw-ups with an appropriate yet gently humorous/self-mocking tone. The internet rewards people who fix it right. Exhibit A is the Red Cross:

  • #177900

    Scott Horvath

    Technically, everything is a publication is it not? So, everything should be written with the understanding that

    1. It’s going to be public
    2. It’s going to seen as “from the government” (not necessarily just your specific agency)
    3. It’s going to be used in other forums, sometimes out of context.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean every tweet or post needs to have 12 levels of review. What it does mean, however, is that the people that do publish material (blog post, publication, tweet, etc) should all be understanding of those three things and keep them in mind as they produce content.

    Yes, there’s a different level of review for scientific publications, and rightly so, because you’re talking about ensuring the accuracy (as much as possible) of the science. There are ways that continuing research could be published if it’s clear that it’s not a final product, but by and large that doesn’t happen a whole lot. But when you do publish your final product, like many do now, you do want to be sure that you’ve done due diligence to ensure the science is accurate as possible.

    But in the end everything is technically a publication no matter where it’s published.

    Note: this comment is my personal opinion and not that of my agency.

    ^–and there’s one more thing that always comes into play when you post something. Does it make it any less governmental as a publication?

  • #177898

    Joe Flood

    Excellent post. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, blog comments and all sorts of other electronic communication has blurred the idea of publishing. We’re all publishers now, if you think about it. On the Internet, a blog post from a disgruntled staffer has the same “weight” as an agency press release. They are both bits of content in the ether and it’s up to readers to assign a value to them.

    Which is why agencies can’t suppress communications. If you’re not out there with your information, other people will be glad to supply theirs.

    What’s required are content management systems that allow ordinary staffers to write, edit and approve updates in a timely manner. WordPress and Drupal are both excellent choices, allowing reviews and approval to occur before an item is published.

    But the most important element is the human one. You need qualified editors who know your agency. They know the language to use, the hot-button topics and, most importantly, the subjects to avoid. All communication should come through them.

    Publishing is serious business, with the power to make or break agencies. It deserves more respect.

  • #177896

    Joe Flood

    I know that infamous Red Cross employee! In the end, it turned into a net positive because they had a sense of humor and didn’t freak out. The Red Cross realized it was a mistake and that they had to keep tweeting.

  • #177894

    Yvette Grimes

    Publishing is serious business and print publications are precious. It doesn’t matter if it’s in electronic or print information. Some government agencies may have to redefine their policies on publishing; since technology has changed the way our society receives information. I agree with you – there is no such thing as a soft launch on the web anymore and Google does find everything.

  • #177892

    Chris Trent

    Here’s how it works with Congressional communications, such as testimony at a hearing: the information is considered public, and therefore shareable, after the hearing has concluded. In other words, once a given document has been delivered according to the protocol of its intended audience, it becomes fair game and anyone should be able to access it and use it.

  • #177890

    People should be clear about what is and is not confidential and when they are or are not representing the agency. When in doubt, they should ask.

  • #177888

    Dave Hebert

    Wow — that looks like a Kafka joke on bureaucracy or something.

    The impact can indeed be far greater, and citizens tend to take it a lot more personally given that they sort of paid for the mistake themselves.

    Thanks, Peg; looking forward to the discussion on Tuesday!

  • #177886

    Dave Hebert

    Good example of what is becoming a much more acceptable thing for even the federal gov. to do: behave in a human-like manner.

    It seems a no-brainer, but our default response to harmless mistakes has often been robotic contrition or defensive bureaucracy.

    That being said, gov’t definitely needs to know when a mistake is grave enough to NOT warrant a smirking response, too.

  • #177884

    Dave Hebert

    You raise something right at the end here, Scott, that I find really troublesome and interesting — the rapidly blurring line between personal self and professional self.

    I know of at least one instance where a Department in the U.S. gov’t requested that one of its subordinate agencies ask an employee to stop criticizing the President … on his personal Twitter account.

    My initial reaction was indignation, but the further details revealed that this person tweeted about work-related things from his account quite a bit and was seen as having a strong affiliation on social media to his employing agency even in a personal capacity.

    I’m not arguing that such affiliation justifies asking him not to exercise his first amendment rights in a personal capacity; I’m wondering what personal capacity means anymore. Perhaps a topic for a future You Tell Me …

  • #177882

    Dave Hebert

    Great response, Joe — covered several important angles.

    It’s a huge mistake to think you can control anything from a comm. perspective, much less the narrative about an issue or an incident. We’d do much better to just make sure our own stuff is in order and that we are telling the truth.

    We must, however (and as you state), be cautious to say exactly what we mean, no more, and no less, and that take a thoughtful and concerted effort/process.

  • #177880

    Dave Hebert

    That provides some clarity that it seems is missing in other venues. What’s the consequence of violating this construct — lack of future trust/damage to relationships/severing of important lines of comm?

  • #177878

    Scott Horvath

    It is a bit iffy sometimes, I agree. It’s a very sticky subject. When you’re at work, you’re at work. When you leave your physical office, you go home. Your work day is over…and you interact with your friends, neighbors, family, run errands, go to bar, etc. Your work life and your personal life are separate. So why shouldn’t social media be just as easy? Yet it’s so difficult!

  • #177876

    Chris Trent

    That’s about it. Like with other forms of protocol, the the consequences of breaking it are not clearly established but real enough that almost no one does so.

  • #177874

    David B. Grinberg

    Many good comments on this timely post.

    What is publishing?

    In today’s digital/mobile information age, publishing is anything your agency officially posts online, regardless of whether one’s name is attached as a spokesperson, official or other attribution, etc. Thus, don’t “shoot first and ask questions later” — get it right the first time, every time if possible. Be contrite and self-deprecating if and when an error occurs. Throw out the bureaucratic, robotic jargon and provide a human touch. Show some humility and humor, as appropriate.

    How seriously should we take it?

    Very seriously. An agency’s public image and brand are at stake, not to mention that of government generally. Don’t assume you know everything. As Dannielle notes, ask questions. Then, if still in doubt, just leave it out!

    Before you “press the send button” make sure to carefully read and re-read your content — then have a colleague proof it and your supervisor bless it (time permitting). Then read it again before issuance.

    Remember that first impressions last. Moreover, it’s painstaking — if not impossible — to put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube, especially in cyberspace. Thus, be concise, accurate and accountable. Enough said.


  • #177872

    Tom Johnson

    At my former agency, publications were scientific that went through a series of mandated peer reviews. First, the author(s) would have their work reviewed and edited by peers that they knew in that area of research. Second, the facility director assigned a committee which included a statistician, to review and edit the work and the director had to sign off on the committee review. Third, it went upstairs to either the regional or national office for review and editing. Fourth, it was then submitted to a journal and went through another peer review and editing. Fifth, if it was accepted by the journal, it finally was published and then placed on the website for the facility as well as notification was sent to the central repository that it was published. Doesn’t every agency follow this protocol? They should.

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