If you believe the Authentic Enterprise report from the Arthur W. Page society, this is one of the most critical questions for government in the digital age.
The report looks at three converging trends for corporate and government communications in the 21st society,
- The digital network economy
"...providing interlinked, low cost (even free) and easy-to-use ways to communicate, to publish and to broadcast, to work and to organize people with common interests. This is driving a shift in the way people interact with each other and with companies and institutions. It changes how dialogue occurs, how perceptions are shaped and how relationships are forged."
- The reality of a global economy
"Free trade agreements, the Internet and the emergence of highly skilled populations in developing regions have created a “flat world.” This is reshaping the footprint – and even the idea – of the corporation. It’s shifting from a hierarchical, monolithic, multinational model to one that is horizontal, networked and globally integrated."
- The appearance and empowerment of myriad new stakeholders:
"...there is now a diverse array of communities, interests, nongovernmental organizations and individuals. Many of these new players represent important interests, while others are not legitimate stakeholders, but rather simply adversarial or malicious.
Regardless of motive, all are far more able to collaborate among themselves around shared interests and to reach large audiences.
As it states in the report,
"The quality of the company’s products and services (or lack thereof) is apparent to all customers and potential customers. Its treatment of employees and retirees is visible across the corporation and to potential employees and public interest groups. Its citizenship, environmental behavior, corporate governance standards, executive compensation practices and public policy recommendations are transparent to all."The upshot is that public and private organisations that wish to continue to thrive need to rethink their approach in a holistic way, not simply shifting their externally communications messages, but making authentic and lasting changes in how they conduct business, deliver customer service, treat staff and address environmental and governance issues.
What does this specifically mean for government communicators?
I've already begun exploring this topic in previous posts - we're already seeing greater online scrutiny and more information available on government agencies in channels that agencies have limited influence or control over.
Over time it will become increasingly important for departments or senior public officials to walk their talk every time, as any differences between message and reality will become more obvious and widely known, potentially creating embarrassment and more for governments or the individuals involved.
Where message and action are not consistent PR issues will arise faster, from unexpected angles and potentially do lasting damage to the credibility of government agencies and the government of the day.
That's not an epitaph any government communicator should like to have.
So what can government agencies do?
There's an opportunity right now for government agencies to join the online conversations, establish credibility (being government isn't automatic credibility anymore) and become an opinion leader, rather than an opinion victim.
While government communicators cannot control these discussions, we can at least ensure we're in the loop, able to explain misunderstandings before they spiral out of control and correct agency mistakes before they become damaging.
This does mean making hard decisions - comment approvals cannot take weeks, the audience's language must be used rather than jargon and bureaucratise, honesty and authenticity are paramount, to the extent of admitting (and rectifying) mistakes and, as the biggest kid on the block, government agencies have to play very gently or be perceived as bullies.
The alternative is for government communicators to fall back on the old approach - make no comment, only engage via 'official' channels and hope the storms that arise will blow over.
There are examples already of how poorly this has worked for organisations elsewhere in the world.
How to take action
- Search for mentions of your agency on the internet and discover some of the centres of discussion and debate. Gauge their tone and approach and whether they would welcome official representation, familiarise yourself with the appropriate way to write for the audience.
- Prepare internal policies on online engagement - how should your organisation react to or address negative blog or forum posts?
- Prepare an engagement strategy that provides the flexibility to communicate the facts, with as little spin as possible, then get it approved and get involved in the discussion.