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5 Distorted Ideas About Communication That Destroy Americans’ Trust In Government

I’ve been a government communicator for a long time. In 13 years of doing this job at half a dozen federal agencies, I see the same problems over and over again. They lead people to think that the government can’t be trusted, when the problem really is that we allow a bunch of messed-up ideas to govern the way we talk to people.

  • Messed up idea #1: Make them look for it: Typically the government keeps its mouth shut about things unless it absolutely has to communicate. The faulty reasoning behind this notion is that communicating with the public will inevitably lead to misunderstanding at best and public opposition at worst. As any journalist will tell you, just the opposite is true. The more you keep the public informed of your activities and the output of your operations, the greater their trust in you. The policy should be to overcommunicate, overcommunicate, overcommunicate, and overcommunicate some more. (In very plain and accessible English, which by the way is also the law.)
  • Messed up idea #2: People read paragraphs. The year now is 2016. You can barely get people to read a Tweet. Why would you continue to offer them any written communication where the words are bunched up like a legal contract? Do you know what happens when people read legal contracts? They call their lawyers, because it looks like someone is trying to fool them. The more you write for comprehension, the greater your audience’s trust in you. Aim for short, 2-3 sentence paragraphs, with lists broken up into bullets, and offer a link to more detailed information should the person desire it.
  • Messed up idea #3: We’re talking to a bunch of Ph.Ds. Let’s be honest, in Washington we tend to have our heads in our intestines quite a bit when it comes to writing things for the public. Do you know how hard it is to qualify for a government job, how many degrees people have over here? It’s not uncommon for someone to have two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., or a Ph.D. and a J.D., or even a J.D. and an M.D. You might think this is great news since you’ve got a lot of “smart” people running the country, but the problem is that most people don’t have multiple advanced degrees. It is not our job to pass judgment on what people should understand. It is our job to talk to people in a way that makes sense to them. We tend to forget that they are the ones that pay the bills.
  • Messed up idea #4: Less is more in a crisis. As a private citizen I watch the news of bombs in New York City with horror. I see bomb threats at my local public school and shudder. And I look for information from the government. Where is it? Nowhere! Because the government is much too conservative about sharing information with the public. Even if there is nothing to say, the government should put a point person in charge of crisis communication and that person should provide constant updates, meaning literally every half an hour. If this doesn’t happen, the public automatically believes everybody else and is prone to assume that there is a coverup.
  • Messed up idea #5: Your opinion is as good as mine. This cognitive bias is nothing new to government communicators or even communicators in the private sector. The fact of the matter is that telling people things in a way that informs and engages is extremely difficult. You can be in communication your whole career and never figure it out, not just because it’s a difficult skillset but also because the nature of your audience and their information environment is constantly changing over time. So when amateurs think that they know better than a communicator how to get the words out, that is frankly nothing less than shocking. If you’re paying someone to deliver words, trust them to do their job and take their advice unless you have a good reason not to.


All opinions my own. Photo by JJ via Flickr (Creative Commons).


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