• Opinion
  • October 3, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Here’s how government can get its message across — without the media

Opinion: It's time for public servants to communicate directly with citizens

This opinion piece was written by Joseph Maltby, a change management specialist in the US federal government and chief outreach officer at Young Government Leaders. It also appears in our government innovation newsfeed


In the movie The Incredibles 2, superheroes have been made illegal for public safety reasons. The government claims that the good superheroes do is outweighed by the harm their actions cause, and that regular citizens don’t feel they’re in control.

A media mogul offers to rehabilitate the heroes. He asks them what the real source of their problem is. It’s not the law, he explains, but the perception of reality that led to the law.  The average person only sees one side of the story: the bad news that gets broadcast on the media. Because they see what politicians and the mass media tell them, they adopt their worldview.

In short, it’s not enough to affect reality if you aren’t also affecting the way others see that reality. Or, to quote the movie directly: “If we want to change people’s perceptions, we need you to share your perceptions with the world.”

How does that lesson apply to public servants?  On the surface, the problems these fictional superheroes face seem familiar.  We also save, protect, and help citizens.  We also spend most of our time doing good rather than making sure people know we’re doing good.  So what can we do differently to shape perceptions directly?

Better communication

Government needs to communicate more, and more skillfully, to become a source of information independent of the mass media. The goal is to be trusted by many, but noticed by all.  Often public relations and information-sharing in the government is in reaction to an event, a crisis, an external request, or a scandal, rather than being about telling our stories every single day.

In a survey of U.S. federal government employees working on social media, 47% said their agencies had significant room for improvement in how they utilise social media. Only 40% thought their agencies had a clear strategic focus on social media. In 2017, one writer noted that the US agency handling hurricane response coordination had 634,000 Twitter followers, while Kim Kardashian had 54.8 million.

It’s not enough anymore to be able to reach an audience of influential experts with a report or to get onto the Sunday news. Every citizen is curating their own media and their own worldview, and we need to be competing for each of them with the same coordination as a large cooperation. We may not win the trust of everyone, but at least we’ll be fighting for it.

More transparency

If we want citizens’ trust, we need to embrace radical transparency.  In a world where people volunteer to put cameras in their homes to be on TV and politicians leak taped conversations of each other, the public expects to see everything.

Every gap in the information they see will spawn a conspiracy theory and every cover-up or attempt to spin bad news convinces another citizen that we can’t be trusted. It’s not fair, but if we want to win trust, we need to embrace openness to show we deserve it.

Trust takes a long time to build and is lost easily. The assumption should be that a citizen who doesn’t know what we’re doing, good and bad, or doesn’t understand it, isn’t on our side.  Sacrificing that trust to win one or two media cycles is the equivalent of buying fancy clothes with an overdrawn credit card.

Share your voice

Finally, we need to take that fictional media mogul’s advice and share our own perceptions with the world.

Two-thirds of Americans use social media as a news source and social media adoption is increasing across the globe. People trust recommendations from friends and family 92% of the time, which is a lot more than how they trust their own governments. Public servants are their friends and family, so why not use those voices and those networks to change the public debate?

The average citizen hears from professional advocates and agency executives, not from public servants doing the everyday work. We may not be movie superheroes, but we definitely have secret identities. Hearing from the actual people working for the public might be much more persuasive, and could help citizens discard the easy narratives they hear from politicians and the media. Our perceptions can help shape their perceptions and help them feel connected to their government again.

Why don’t we do this already? Because we’re afraid. Public sector leaders and the public relations experts working for them fear that they will share the wrong thing and get in trouble.  They fear transparency will create scandals. They fear that regular public servants might go wildly off message at any time. And make no mistake, these are real risks.

Yet we live in a world where only a third of Americans trust the government to do what’s right and just 18% of Americans trust us to do the right thing most of the time.  Trust in government has also declined across OECD countries. We live in a world where each person has the power to shape their own reality by choosing which media sources they trust. We can’t afford to keep using old methods and old ways of thinking in this new world.

Losing the public’s trust will mean catastrophic harm to our ability to serve that public. This is a very different way of doing things, but it might be what a successful, trusted government in the Information Age requires. Step into the spotlight, heroes. — Joseph Maltby

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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