Communication paralysis as the US Government goes into Shutdown

NASA tweets communications shutdown
NASA tweets communications shutdown

With all Federal Government Departments in the United States standing down ‘non-essential’ staff, communications have ground to a halt. The Congressional stand-off – the first in 17 years and the first since the advent of social media; means that the biggest propaganda machine in the world has lost it’s voice at a time when communication is most critical.

In the 24/7 news media cycle, this equates to an epic case of communications paralysis for Government Departments.

Unlike traditional crisis and incident management strategies, a wholesale shutdown of all communications presents unique challenges for communicators. Those in ‘essential’ positions – such as in the military, law enforcement and emergency services will still have staff in the game; but for every other Department, offices will remain empty, phones unanswered and social media streams unchecked.

The result? Risk.

Brand: damage.

The lack of control the US Government has over it’s own ability to govern represents a damaging prognosis for global brand confidence. As the Republicans and Democrats continue trade political blows, the world watches with confusion. Few outside the United States truly understand their political system and how a Government can ‘shutdown’. As the global media wields the ‘Tea Party Politics’ headline, and with no communications updates coming from the United States Government,  the public is left to wonder how a global super-power has been silenced from within.

For communicators this represents a double edged sword of crisis.

For those in ‘essential’ jobs, business is as usual as it can be when your Government is being paralyzed from the inside out. For those that have been stood down, when their eventual return to work occurs, they will face a backlog of work plus the challenge of transitioning into ‘business as usual.’ Add in to this mix, the ire of the public and news media – and their own experience of living without a wage – and communicating anything with authenticity in an apolitical way becomes challenging.

The Plan: Stay silent – at least initially.

You’ve waited this long to be able to say something: don’t rush into saying ‘something’ just for the sake of it. Have a plan.

Lead communicators and Senior Managers need to allow their PR, media and communications teams to regroup and set a short-term strategy. Give them a 24 hour head start. Give them the space to assess and proactively plan their workflow before going live. While the Department may be open for business, the messaging coming out should be measured and ease back into regularity. On social media, this will be even more important, as authentic content that is timely will need reflect corporately consistent messaging and acknowledge an audience ignored.

Public: outrage.

If you don’t already have a complaints Department – build one in a hurry. Get expert assistance.

If you do – double the number of people on the team. Hire temps, divert resources.

Why? Because the wrath of the people is about to descend on your Department like a plague. And yes – the shutdown was completely out of your control, but the complaining public don’t care. You are a service provider and you have failed to provide that service. Get over the injustice of the situation quickly and devise your messaging to be at it’s core consistent; yet flexible enough to acknowledge individual concerns. Care authentically about the concerns of your complainants. Transition them from frustration and anger to solutions.

The Plan: Listen. Acknowledge. Transition.

Listen: The people taking complaints – whether that be by phone, email, letter, tweet or post need to listen. This is not the time to negotiate or argue, it is the time to listen.

Acknowledge: Those team members listening to the complainants need to actively acknowledge their concerns. You don’t have to agree with someone or apologise to make them feel heard. Understand that complainants are after a solution – not more problems, delays or issues.

Transition: Once you have listened and heard your complainants, provide a solution. Be honest – tell them how long it will take, what hoops they need to jump through and what outcomes they can expect. Resist the temptation to sugar-coat your tone across your communications channels. No one is happy about the situation, so having an uber positive and cheery demeanour will only come across as insincere. Authenticity is essential to successfully transitioning people from their focus on their issue; to a focus on the solution YOU can provide.

Information: void.

The news media is in the business of selling news – not necessarily telling the truth; and a communications void creates an information vacuum where by half-truths, rumour and gossip become trade currency. If issues need addressing do it properly and do it once. Don’t play double jeopardy with the media.

The Plan: have a plan and stick to it.

Sort the out-of-date, still relevant and time critical inquiries and prioritize them. Think beyond the presser – can your message be better communicated in person? Press conferences often allow for several inquiries to be resolved to a broad range of media at once. Press conferences are also exceptionally personable – use them as a means to renew your media relationships and draw a line in the sand on particular matters when necessary. Spend the time preparing your spokesperson and executing a well facilitated press conference will save you time in responding to each individual inquiry. Be helpful – provide updates and information that are relevant and newsworthy.

Touch base with every single journalist that made a media inquiry – even if that inquiry has been overtaken by events, in slower time call them and acknowledge the request, and your inability to answer it at the time. A two minute phone call shows you’re on top of your game, and you value the their relationship with your Department.

Social: anarchy.

If your Department was socially active before the shutdown, you are facing a broad spectrum of community moderation, comments, tweets and messages to catch up on. Take stock, make sure your social team is singing the same tune as your PR or Corporate Communications team – consistency across all your channels is essential. Well placed, apolitical humour – where appropriate, can re-engerize your audience.

What ever your first move- aim to be exceedingly helpful. Don’t give your audience any more social ammunition to shoot at you with! Social mis-steps, such as trying to launch your audience back into social business as usual is risky at best – viral at worst.

The Plan: ease back into your social sphere.

Moderate first – get rid of posts and messages that fall outside your published social media guidelines, such as offensive photo’s or comments on your Facebook wall. Leave genuine complaints visible and publicly managed them in due course.

Transitioning social complainants offline as soon as possible will reduce your overall social workload – don’t get embroiled in tweep-for-twat arguments, have a response, transition the person to an offline channel and manage them. Have a dedicated person or team to make sure this remediation happens – you don’t want complainants taking to twitter again, because you failed to deliver a resolution the first time around.

Run keyword and hashtag monitoring – see what was said about you while you were away, gauge social brand apathy and if necessary, include this in your forward planning for returning to a business as usual mode of operations.

Staff: well-being.

Do not forget your communications, media and PR staff during the return to business as usual period. They haven’t been on a holiday – they’ve been worrying about paying their mortgage, bills and feeding their families. This is stressful. Coming back into a work environment with a huge backlog of work, numerous unhappy members of the public to deal with and a frazzled management team is also stressful.

The Plan: treat your workforce like family.

Managers and supervisors must be more vigilant than ever about the welfare of their staff: put in place mechanisms appropriate to your workplace to manage this change in the normal working routine, heightened workload and excessive public complaints. Check on your staff and ask them to check on each other. Make use of company employee assistance programs during this time, particularly where debriefing and refocusing is required. Don’t leave anyone behind – teamwork is what will endure this crisis, make sure your teams are well bonded and remain outcomes focused.