Evolution of Communication and Onset of Social Media
Without a doubt there have been vast technological improvements which have transformed how information is gathered and transmitted both on a micro and macro scale. Social media, whether Twitter, Facebook, Linked-In, Instagram, Pinterest… and the list goes on, has revolutionized the way we communicate.
In the public sector social media certainly places a pivotal role in the way messages are delivered however the message must be accurate, clear and consistent organization-wide.
We live in a 24/7/365 society. The faster the better right? If you read it on the internet it must be true. Any information is better than no information or is it? Get the message out as quickly as possible particularly during an emergency-timing is everything. How many times have you read an on-line article with grammatical or factual errors? The use of social media must be carefully planned and implemented strategically organization-wide for the purpose(s) for which it is intended otherwise it will be counterproductive, ineffective, potentially detrimental and in extreme cases can induce public doubt, fear and mistrust.
It used to be think before you speak, say what you mean and mean what you say however now it’s read and reread, don’t act in haste and read and reread again before you hit send. The evolution of communication, while providing an opportunity to transmit data and messaging to a large audience quickly is a powerful tool but instant misinformation cannot and should not replace accurate information. There needs to be an appropriate balance between timing, quantity and quality of messaging and information.
This evolution of high-tech communication is also somewhat of a paradox in that the speed and number of people a message can be communicated to at one time should invoke pause and encourage public sector employees to be deliberate in what is said and how it may be interpreted. Remember this is not Las Vegas-everything you say or do, particularly in a public setting or forum may be evaluated and scrutinized by a large audience in the amount of time it takes to send a tweet or post a photograph or video on the internet.
Text Talk or Face-to-Face Meetings???
Which do you prefer? Colin Powell, a military leader and statesman stated: “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” I believe the importance of face-to-face meetings; one-on-one communication and/or traditional public forums cannot be overstated nor their benefit(s) underestimated.
In the public sector there is something I call the “Fishbowl Effect.” Politics, media, public scrutiny, transparency and accountability all contribute to the “Fishbowl Effect,” which is this: if you work in the public sector you should be held to a higher standard. Your actions speak louder than words and perception is reality. Why?
Self-reflection and individual predispositions are important because working for the public requires a strong commitment to serving and engaging those within the community you are a part of while contemporaneously being an advocate. Public sector employees are fiduciaries of public funds and thus entrusted with a tremendous responsibility. In that respect alone public sector employees have an obligation to sit down and talk to those individuals, whether residents, business owners or other stakeholders about what their concerns are, as well as actively listening and engaging them, whether during a planning process, budget hearing or other form of public business.
Phone calls are great, and I try to adhere to a 24-hour rule in returning a call if at least to say I received your message and will get back to you by such and such a date with an answer. Texting and electronic mail are certainly acceptable however I believe they must be utilized to supplement phone calls and face-to-face meetings but not replace them. I am an avid believer and proponent that true trust and confidence can only be achieved through face-to-face meetings and one-on-one communication, and as public sector employees it’s our responsibility to ensure those opportunities are provided.
Communicating a Clear and Consistent Message
George Seldes, in a 1942 publication of his weekly newsletter, In Fact, Inc. entitled: The Facts Are… : A Guide to Falsehood and Propaganda in the Press and Radio wrote about the power and corruption of the press primarily due to its close association with special interests. He stated: “What is the most powerful force in America Today? Answer: public opinion. What makes public opinion? Answer: the main force is the press.” Does this still hold true today?
I would argue public opinion is just as or more important today than it was in 1942. Whether it’s “the press,” another media outlet or an internet troll our society is continuously being bombarded with information, messaging and editorials. Therefore, it’s imperative, particularly in the public sector, these information transmittals are clear, timely, accurate and provide a consistent message.
Throughout history until present day the media has and always will be, through whatever medium, transmitting news, events and other forms of information to a large audience-the general public. While communication has evolved from oral tradition to the written word sent via The Pony Express, across telegraph wires and fiber optic networks the media and power of public opinion has remained constant and omnipresent. The only difference is the speed at which messages are transmitted and received.
Think about public leaders throughout history which have embraced the media and utilized the them as a resource most effectively. Many are also referred to as some of history’s most charismatic people. A few come to mind: President Abraham Lincoln, President James A. Garfield, who revolutionized “front porch campaigning,” President Theodore Roosevelt who was effective at engaging the media positively but also learned “Muckraking,” (a negative metaphor for what is now commonly referred to as investigative journalism) the power the media had in exposing corporate corruption and social ills.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt used frequent radio broadcasts which became fondly referred to as “Fireside Chats” to enter into homes across the country and communicate messaging in a manner which captivated the American public and elicited public trust and confidence in him.
The Power of Words
Words, whether spoken, written, texted or tweeted, are powerful and must be chosen carefully particularly during trying times and under difficult circumstances. I mentioned several public figures throughout history which I believe effectively utilized the media to transmit information to large constituencies.
Think about famous speeches which have occurred, when they happened and why these speeches may be or were required to be some of the most powerful of all time or during critical or watershed moments in our nation’s history. A few come to mind: The Gettysburg Address, President Roosevelt’s address to Congress following the Japanese attached on Pearl Harbor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech and President George W. Bush’s address to the nation on September 11, 2001. All transpired over a 138-year period, each to diverse audiences of multiple sizes, all of varying lengths and mediums yet each required precise delivery and carefully selected words.
During President Roosevelt’s address to Congress following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Roosevelt was very deliberate in his choice of words. He declared war on Japan but not on Germany. Three days later Germany declared war on the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before a vast public audience in an emblematic public display with incredible conviction and during an extremely turbulent time in United States history.
Although well-known at the time it was at this oration and specifically the words, “I have a Dream,” which remain embedded in our minds. President Bush addressed the American people following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks through a television camera while sitting at a desk and each word he used was carefully chosen, spoken and delivered in a manner which mandated as our country’s leader confidence be instilled to citizens during an extremely tense and vulnerable moment in the 21st century.
I would encourage you to read or listen to any of the aforementioned speeches and pay particular attention to the choice of words, how they were delivered and the presence commanded by the four orators. There are numerous other examples which are also worthy of our attention and each provide a glimpse of why it is so important to communicate a clear and consistent message. We have to also remember while each of these speeches was geared to a specific audience it was also certainly going to be read, seen or heard by larger more diverse audiences.
What if President Roosevelt or President Bush did not address the nation following the events which occurred in 1941 or 2001? Particularly, in our 24/7/365 society, what if President Bush waited one or two days to deliver a message? I would suggest the message would have been delivered numerous times over by myriad groups and individuals and what impact would this of had on the American public or others around the world? Imagine, if any of the aforementioned speeches never occurred?