Thursday, May 23, 2013

Teamwork - Tips for Federal Communicators

Posted by: Moniqua Roberts, Program Analyst/Communications Specialist on May 23, 2013

How often have you heard the (dreaded) words, “team project”? Did you silently cringe in your seat or welcome the opportunity to work with your esteemed colleagues, those excellent federal communicators in the office next to yours and down the hall? If we are perfectly honest with ourselves, the answer would be a little of both.
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
George Bernard Shaw

Communication and collaboration can be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare (thanks for the lyrics Beyoncé).

In a team, bad communication means your message doesn't resonate with your intended audience. Verbal and non-verbal cues might be missed and misinterpreted. This happens even in teams made up of communications professionals, people who studied communication, perform communication functions on behalf of agencies, and often think that they are pretty good at communicating.

Even as communicators, there are barriers that prohibit your message from getting across. How do you effectively communicate in these instances?

I started to ponder, how can we prevent barriers from stopping effective communication and collaboration in a team environment, in which federal communicators are working together? I think the following tips may be helpful.

1. Listen

The number one communication barrier is the failure to listen. It is critical to listen to your team members’ suggestions and be open to constructive criticism. It has often been said that two heads are better than one. Life brings a variety of experiences that can offer viable solutions. Failure to listen can ultimately affect the dynamics of the group, cause misunderstandings, missed deadlines and ultimately failure to meet the desired objectives of the project.

2. Adapt to Change

Be flexible in your thinking. Team environments can nurture professional and personal growth. If you can be open to different thought processes, there are valuable lessons for all parties. If many instances, there will be role reversals. Team members must be objective. Innovative ideas are usually produced in a team environment and solutions to problems are met. Avoid ineffective team environments that do not allow or foster growth.

3. Establish Guidelines & Boundaries

To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.
Tony Robbins
There must be clearly defined roles and assignments for projects. If each team member properly defines his or her role, or if a leader clearly defines all roles, this will help prevent communication breakdown. The objective of the project should be clearly stated and the role of each member should be targeted with specific responsibilities outlined. All team members should have a clear sense of purpose. There should be conflict resolution tools in place to eliminate problems/disagreements before they escalate and cause division amongst the group. Set deadlines and adhere to them.

What other tips do you use to encourage effective communication and collaboration on team projects with other federal communicators? Share your tips by submitting a comment, below.

This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network. We've published lots more on this topic. Read Let's Join Hands: Accomplish More Through Collaboration!, then learn more about how federal communicators work in teams to accomplish internal communications in Employee Communications and Engagement.

Monday, May 13, 2013

3 Keys to Successful Media Relations for Federal Communicators

Posted by: David B. Grinberg, Senior Communications Advisor, Former Agency Spokesman

Many feds are not fond of the press. In nightmares, feds worry about the programs they steward ending up "on the front page of the Washington Post," with program weaknesses perhaps magnified by inaccurate reporting. However, as a government communicator it may be your job to "tame the beast" and obtain positive media coverage for your agency. Here are three keys for doing so: 

1. Humanize It: People Are the Key to Successful Agency Communications with Media

It's important to recognize that reporters are people too.

Press photographers record Obama
Photo courtesy Flickr user sskennel, CC BY 2.0
How much do you know about those in media who cover your agency? Moreover, how do you ensure that government-media relations are non-adversarial and mutually beneficial? 

A good start is by proactively forging positive relationships.

Get to know journalists on a basic human level. This goes a long way toward building mutual respect, good will and trust, essential elements of any good relationship. 

Forget about the "us versus them" mentality. Rather, get out of the trenches and meet reporters face-to-face. Get to know them.

Meet up with journalists for coffee or lunch. Visit their newsroom. Give them a tour of your agency and introduce them to the major players. 

Express genuine interest in a reporter. Find out some basic information which may lead to things in common.

Where did the reporter go to college? What's their home town? How did they get into journalism? Do they think their supervisor a jerk, like some you might have experienced? Find that common ground.

Personalizing the government-media relationship allows each party to view the other as an individual rather than as an adversarial institution. Forging successful media relations begins with humanizing it.

2. Be Accessible: Government Media Relations Isn't a 9-to-5 Job

Second, always be accessible to the press. Today's hyper-paced digital age means that news is breaking around the clock. If you work in a public affairs shop, it's your job to help your agency be responsive to reporters. 

Photo courtesy Flickr user Aramil Liadon, CC BY 2.0
Journalists don't want to get voicemail when they call you on deadline. Moreover, you don't want your agency cited in a story as being unreachable or unresponsive, which is embarrassing.

Even though your official work day may technically be over at a time certain, reporters may still need your help. The reporter is depending on you--the agency media contact--to be there, even after hours.

Therefore, provide influential reporters with a way to reach you at all times. Yes, that means you may be interrupted at home on a work night, or over the weekend. But, as a government communicator, it should be paramount that your agency is portrayed fairly and accurately in the press. That's your job.

Accessibility builds trust and yields dividends. Being inaccessible creates animosity and frustration, which may result in bad press and factual inaccuracies.

3. Be Transparent

As a government communicator, it's important to remember the critically important role of a free press in an open society.  In that sense, your agency should be providing more information to the press and public than it withholds. Government should strive to be as transparent as possible. Of course, the media play an important role in this process.

Although government does not work for the media, it must work with the media. Reporters should have a sense at the micro-level that you, as the media contact, are working with them, not against them--whether real or perceived. Being transparent means going the extra mile for reporters, even if that means occasionally rocking the boat internally.   

For example, don't withhold information unless it's absolutely necessary. Don't make a reporter file a FOIA request for data you are able to provide without one.

Don't ever lie to reporters because trust is difficult to regain. Further, as the old saying goes, the cover up is usually worse than the crime.

If you're wrong or don't know something, admit it. If you cannot fulfill a media request, explain why. If you can't speak on-the-record, then go off-the-record or suggest other sources for information. 

Let reporters know up front that you won't be able to meet their deadline, if that's the case, or arrange an interview with the right person by a requested date.

If you must get negative information out, then do so quickly and all at once, rather than creating the drip-drip-drip effect of sharing bad info piecemeal over time. That only results in more bad press.

Being transparent means being honest, open and forthcoming with reporters. This builds respect and goodwill in the short-term, as well as over the long run. 

In essence, remember that successful media relations often hinge on personal relationships.

What other tips do you use to represent government in working with the media? Share your tips by submitting a comment, below.

This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network.
We've published lots more on this topic. Read Types of Media Interviews--Larry's Tips and Federal Communicators and the Media: Not So Easy. Note: All views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author only, not his current or future employers.

Monday, May 6, 2013

5 Tips - How To Write for the Web

Posted by: Britt Ehrhardt, Technical Writer/Editor, May 6, 2013

Writing for publication on a website is quite different than writing for print. Avoid mistakes that chase away your readers--use these tips.

Evidence is accumulating that people don't read online. Instead, they scan, something halfway between watching television and reading a book.

Don't expect your visitors to change just for you and your content. They won't. Instead, meet them where they are.

Writing- Pen & Paper
Photo by Flickr user LMRitchie, CC BY 2.0

1. Short Paragraphs

Paragraphs of 5 or 6 sentences are too long. Write short, perhaps 2 sentences per paragraph.

If you can't identify your main points and pare down your material, find someone who can edit and ask them to do it for you.

Some recommend writing 25-50% less than you would for a hard-copy publication on the same topic.

2. Bullets

Why list items in prose when there is a better option? Advantages of bullets include:
  • more scannable
  • immediately apparent that items are a set
  • inserts helpful and attractive white space on page
But don't create a list with too many items. Cognitive psychology points us to a sweet spot, when it comes to lists of items: 3 to 5, or perhaps as many as 7. 9 is definitely too many.

3. Headers and Sub-Heads

Your headers and sub-heads should specifically describe the content they preface. For example, "Apply for Grant XYZ" is better than "Apply."

Search engines like Google scan the headers and sub-headers you include to help determine where your page should rank in search results. Be sure that your headers and sub-heads include the words and phrases you expect your visitors to search for. This is part of search engine optimization. If you're writing regularly for the web, you ought to read up on that as well.

Also be sure your headers and sub-heads are marked with the appropriate, behind-the-scenes html header tags--h1, h2, h3, etc--so that search engines can find them. A content management system should do this automatically.

Cat reading online news
Photo by Flickr user raoultrifan, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

4. Insert Links While You Write

While writing, not afterwards, you should be identifying opportunities to link related resources, finding the appropriate links, and inserting them. Don't save related items for an Additional Resources section of your content. Related resources are most useful at the moment you read the related content, not 5 minutes later.

Read some Wired articles and examine how often they link their prose. That amount of linking would be a good goal: not too much and not too little.

5. Identify Images and Multimedia While You Write

Examine the websites you visit most frequently. How much of the page is text? I bet it's not much.

It's not OK to write first, and plan to think about illustration somewhere down the road. Instead, write text that can be easily illustrated with a great photo, an embedded video, a chart, or something else visual. Or, start your project with a great illustration and write text for that illustration.

It goes without saying that you'll need to be compliant with all the usual accessibility rules.

What other rules do you write by, online? Share your tips in the Comments, below.

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