Don't Let Your Message Morph Into Propaganda

Agencies need to re-examine how they communicate with the public, especially when the facts conflict with the image officials want to project.

I have worked for the federal government since 2003 across half a dozen agencies and not once has anyone ever instructed me to lie. Not once.

But there are many ways to lie. What used to be merely disingenuous on the government's part—a way to avoid controversy, maintain credibility, and try to look good—can be downright dangerous.

In just a few short years, all of us have developed an incredibly sophisticated vocabulary when it comes to decoding the signals and symbols of communication.

In the past, we woke up in the morning and we read the newspaper on the train. Some of us watched the morning news or listened to the news highlights on the radio, driving to work or school.

Not so much today.

The ubiquity and power of social media means that people consume information continuously. Where there used to be an absolute Berlin Wall between fact and opinion, the lines have blurred. As the presidential election made absolutely clear, that reliable construct has clearly fallen.

Branding has been with us for many, many years, too. It is of course the construction of a common fantasy, and for the dream you pay a very specific price premium.

But in the past I think we all knew, or at least had a certain respect for, the belief that there are some things which are "image" and some that are real. For example, President John F. Kennedy had many mistresses while maintaining the image of a marriage. But as a President we admired him, and still do, for his very real humanity, patriotism and vision.

Today branding proliferates to such a crazy extent that we ourselves sometimes forget when we're "being the personal brand" and when we're being real.

It is against this backdrop of a blurry, propagandistic information landscape that the President enters with his or her agenda and political appointees. They must explain their policies to the public, and they must also provide data that the public can rely on.

In essence, this is a contradictory mission. For it will inevitably occur that data contradicts the message.

While of course there are many safeguards built in to prevent the politicization of the civil service, the mental block persists among "civils" and "politicals" against sharing information that "will make the government look bad."

As we say in D.C., "you don't want to find yourself on the cover of the Washington Post."

Often this means that it takes agencies a long time to respond to issues, get data out unless they feel it's totally impossible to misinterpret, or simply just to enter into dialogue with dogged critics.

All of this is a terrible mistake and leads to the politicization of what should be a very vanilla, neutral repository for information that everyone trusts, regardless of their political persuasion.

We should re-examine the communication function within government, and establish a cadre of professionals who operate according to recognized standards independent of whatever agency they serve. Their work should be evaluated every year against published standards, not for "return on investment" but for the extent to which it is factually accurate and is trusted by the public, not government officials.

Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity.