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How Messaging Can Suck the Life Out of Your Agency's Brand

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When I first started working for the government in 2003, I noticed that the employees around me had many different versions of "the truth." 

I noticed that many were bitter. That they frequently greeted new ideas with "we've done all this before, and then some."

Some of my colleagues were downright resigned. They just didn't care. They had "checked out," and virtually nothing was going to bring them back save some really good news about their TSP.

I remember that I was hired because of my brand expertise, but that the view of branding at that time was very much tied to pretty pictures.

Quickly I learned that the higher you went in the organization, the more forward-thinking the leaders, and also the more realistic they were about what could and could not be done.

Executives really did say all the things they should have been saying. Their minds were in the right place, and I can say this with confidence because I regularly had the good fortune to be in the presence of heads of agencies. Even, rarely, to interview them.

But where things began to break down was in the "how" of executive communication. Because you really had to be in the presence of senior leadership to understand what the agency was doing and why.

Not to engage in hyperbole, but it seemed to me there was way too much overthinking of every word everybody said "officially." The words "written by committee" don't even begin to cover it.

There was a hypersensitivity to the what-ifs of this phrasing, that phrasing, the other thing.

To the point where in the end, executive messages really said nothing at all.

I am not arguing for a particular policy about communication here. It's really about theory: a higher level of strategic thinking is due.

When we consider how unmotivated and angry our employees are, the first order of business ought to be how to get them back in the ring. Engaging in, at the very least, the act of reading what executives are saying.

I don't think people should be speaking out of turn, paraphrasing or making up the messaging in their heads.

I do think there should be far more movement inside the government toward encouraging employees at the highest levels, designated speakers, to speak freely and frankly, on as many occasions at possible.

I think communicators ought to pull back, other than helping senior leaders to think through what they want to say, as needed.

There may be fears that words will be misinterpreted. They will be.

But at the end of the day, the damaged morale and rampant mistrust that comes from vanilla, puttylike "official words" is far worse than normal human awkwardness. And the occasional gaffe.

Employees, and the public, can forgive a lot of things. 

It's when they don't care anymore that the government has a real problem.

Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

(Image via Maxim Kalmykov/Shutterstock.com)

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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