Government agencies fulfill a number of roles for the public, from providing necessary services to protecting the homeland. Since these tasks are so critical, effective communication should be a top priority for all of our agencies.
However, sometimes organizations need help with smart communication strategies, and that’s where Corner Alliance comes in. The Washington, DC-based consulting firm focuses on helping government clients manage their communication strategies more effectively. Alan Pentz is co-founder of Corner Alliance, and he recently spoke with WashingtonExec about government communications for the modern world.
WashingtonExec: How can government agencies communicate effectively with their numerous stakeholders?
Alan Pentz: Government has such a diversity of different types of stakeholders. They have different kinds of citizens, customers, other policy makers, that kind of thing. One of the things that we’re seeing in the private sector that we think government really needs to adopt is an understanding of what they call different personas. In other words, what are the motivations and needs of different types of people and what kind of questions are they trying to get answered? We think that there is a lot the government can do, and we’re working with some agencies now to understand the different personas of people coming in and seeking information as well as how to answer their questions and provide them with relevant information.
WashingtonExec: How should government agencies be using social media to communicate with the stakeholders you mentioned?
Alan Pentz: We’re actually releasing a one-on-one guide for government on social media, based on our experience working with agencies on their social media strategies. It is a primer for them to get past some of the initial questions and to get some of the information they need to understand.
Really, social media is just another form of communication. If the people that government serve are on those platforms, then the government needs to be there in order to be relevant in the future. So, I think there are a lot of barriers to that in the government. For example, some agencies prevent their employees from being on social media. In some cases, and this has happened in the corporate world too, social media is considered a time waster and something that people should only do for their personal use. However, we are seeing it as part of a digital toolkit that all federal program managers and leaders need to have access to.
You just really can’t be relevant in the modern world if you’re not on the social media platforms where the people you’re serving are.
WashingtonExec: What’s great about social media is that it provides the public with transparency and real-time information, but there is also risk involved. For example, many of our intelligence and defense agencies have specific privacy and confidentiality concerns. How do you think social media can fit into their communication strategies?
Alan Pentz: Obviously they need to have processes and procedures in place, particularly around sensitive data. I don’t think that differs all that much from the way they operate; they operated before social media, and they had to communicate and get information out. So there are ways they can pre-approve some of the interactions, and they can put in some broad guidelines about what information can and cannot be discussed.
In the modern world there is a tradeoff between your level of transparency and openness with the level of risk and the impact you are able to have on your customer base. You have to find a place in the middle because, if these agencies opt for full control and minimize the risk completely, they’re just going to become irrelevant in the marketplace of ideas out there.
WashingtonExec: Are there any technologies, social media or otherwise, that agencies should be embracing?
Alan Pentz: The government has dabbled in most of the main areas of technologies, but the real problem is that, when a solution is created, it’s very difficult to scale that solution across the government. For instance, one of the priorities for us this year is we developed a tool that’s sort of a virtual briefing book that allows federal leaders to access vetted information across their organization and then use that information when they’re answering data drills or presenting in front of high stakes audiences and big stakeholders. We developed that with NIH, and then it’s been very difficult to take a solution like that and bring it to all the different agencies. Each agency has a different contracting process, each agency has different security requirements, and each agency has other things in its portfolio that make it difficult to bring innovation quickly.
WashingtonExec: What are you and the Corner Alliance team looking forward to this year?
Alan Pentz: Insite is one of our top priorities; it was recently nominated for ACT-IAC for an Igniting Innovation award as one of the innovative projects within the government. We’re looking to take that virtual briefing book solution and bring it to other agencies across the federal government and potentially into the commercial sector as well.
We’re also very involved in the future of communication around the actual technology. We do a lot of work with public safety communications, and there’s a big effort underway to build a broadband network across the country called FirstNet. We’re involved in a lot of the programs that are doing the R&D to try and figure out how public safety can fully adopt broadband technologies and use them to save lives and property across the country.
WashingtonExec: What is the most influential book that you’ve read in your career?
Alan Pentz: The one that I’ve read most recently that really changed my thinking was “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. It’s basically a summation of a lot of the work in the psychology field of how the brain operates in different ways. The idea is that mostly we’re operating with our instinctive brains that have biases and making quick judgments and going with gut feelings. But we also have this sophisticated and easily tired part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex that does most of our logical thinking. This book goes through a lot of the experiments and shows how most people go with their gut and their instinctive decision making and how that goes against your ability to do rational thinking. It’s helpful for any leader in an organization, to understand where a lot of the decisions, biases, and trends in your business come from, these two systems that people use to think. In my consulting work, I’ve seen that leaders can have certain priorities in their mind, but they don’t take the time to communicate them to anybody else. This book talks a lot about how to make that communication very simple and very clear.
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