Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Getting Personal with Government Communications

By: Jessica Robertson, Public Affairs Specialist, April 9, 2013
Photo of Jessica Robertson

Let’s bring federal communicators and audiences to life. Getting personal can be an effective approach to consider as you browse through your communications toolbox.

Federal Communicator's Toolbox for Personalization

Adding a touch of personalization can be done a variety of ways. You can bring a voice to press releases by including quotes and photos. One of the many benefits of social media is the ability for people to ask questions and engage in an interactive dialogue. Podcasts add value and perspective, or you can even go a step further and include video to your list of possibilities.

All of these tools serve to make communicators “real people.” They enable a deeper connection and understanding, for both the communicator and the audience.

Adding a Face to Government through Video

I want to put the spotlight on video products for a moment. A video can be the perfect vehicle for helping the public to put a face to the federal government.

As an example, we have had great success at the USGS with a recent video series, USGS Climate Connections. These videos take an “on the street” interview approach, gathering questions from the general public about climate change and having scientists provide answers. Audiences therefore see our scientists as real people. This approach is especially valuable for discussing sensitive and complicated topics like climate change.

Don’t Just Talk, Give Audiences a Voice

Photo of USGS staff at media event at a middle school. A woman speaks in front of a large crowd of attentive students in an auditorium. One person in the audience holds up a voice recorder towards the woman speaking.
USGS staff lead a media event and emergency drill at a middle school. Photo courtesy of the author.
From our side — the communicator’s side — interactive tools allow us to discover what matters to people instead of assuming what is relevant. We are able to get at the heart of the issue. We should not just tell the public what we want to tell them; we should ask what they want to know.

For the audience, these tools let them engage in the conversation. They give people a voice. Going back to our video series, people want to understand climate change, but it is a complex topic with many surrounding questions. These videos feature questions submitted from cities across the nation, addressing concerns and issues from a diversity of locations.

Aside from video, social media such as Twitter and Facebook enable audiences to talk and ask questions with real people, ultimately feeling as if their opinions are heard. In-person events such as press conferences are extremely valuable, allowing audiences to meet experts in person and have one-on-one conversations. Online forums such as Google Hangouts or Skype can be used to connect with people at great distances and at low cost. These are great alternatives when in-person events aren’t feasible.

Liven Up Government Press Conferences and Events

A traditional press conference has many advantages, including the refreshing component of getting outside the office. However, having officials stand at a podium followed by 10 minutes of questions can be monotonous and boring. Why not go a step further? Have some fun by throwing in activities and adding sparkle to your event.

At the USGS, we recently promoted awareness of East Coast earthquakes and highlighting what to do when an earthquake strikes. As part of that effort, we held a unique and creative media event at a local middle school.
Photo of students participating in emergency drill, sheltering under their school desks.
Students participate in the USGS event. Photo courtesy of the author

Students in three classrooms practiced the “drop, cover and hold on” safety drill, along with officials from the USGS and FEMA. Yes, government employees got under the students’ desks too!

Involving students adds an emotional connection and helps heighten interest in the story overall, as children’s safety is always a priority. 

The event attracted interest from and was attended by local, national, and international media, successfully providing earthquake education worldwide. The media took photos and conducted interviews with students and officials to incorporate a variety of perspectives into their coverage.
 

Visuals and Motivating Behavior

Social scientists have found that one way to motivate behavior is to show people taking a recommended action. The earthquake drill is a good example of this, as we created a visual lesson that everybody could see on TV news and made it personable by involving the local community.

The Climate Connections series allows people to see their neighbors and others across the country asking questions that they might have themselves. This helps them connect with the content and hopefully enhances message pull-through. A few of our episodes were filmed in grade schools, with children posing climate change questions to our scientists. This can be useful for teachers, as their students will identify with the other kids in the video, hopefully resulting in an effective classroom tool.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All for Federal Communications

Not all outreach techniques apply to every scenario. Getting personal can be beneficial, but always start your communication plan by identifying your audience and their needs. But don’t be afraid to come out from behind the text.


This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network.

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