Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The "In and Out" scandal in public sector communications

You might think this blog is all about Canadian politics, but the "in and out" scandal I'm talking about isn't the one where the Harper government was found to be in contempt of Parliament. Rather, it is the issue of how public sector institutions handle their communications. They are simply ignoring external audiences in favour of internal ones. In other words, they are "In" and not "Out" in how they communicate. To me, that's a scandal.

To be sure, not every public institution is like this. There are many that serve their external audiences very well. But many, especially in the health care sector, need to be scolded for devoting too much effort on internal audiences at the expense of external ones. They spend so much effort on their internal publications and their intranet that their focus is mostly on their own people. True, they do look outside their institutions, but when they do it is mostly through "reactive" media releases or writing free articles for a local newspaper that no one except themselves ever reads. Perhaps the zenith of their external push is their website, but here, too, they do not push too hard. If people come to their websites, they come. If they don't, they don't. End of story. Some of them still don't even measure how many people visit their web pages. I think that says it all.

Why do they do that?  Well, for one reason, reaching the internal audience is the usually the most pressing issue in their portfolio. Cutbacks, layoffs, changes in the workplace, capital redevelopment -- all must be addressed by the communications people. But frankly, these groups are also the lowest hanging fruit. They are relatively easy to find and addressing their issues makes the communications shop look effective. Things like media releases can also give people the appearance that the institution is communicating externally, even though most media relations programs deliver lukewarm results at best.

The problem is that public sector institutions serve the public, not themselves. External audiences are tougher to find, tougher to engage, but they are the people who can actually make a difference in the long-term health of the institution. Without a supportive public, the mission of the public sector will always be troubled.

Part of the problem is a lack of skills and resources. Most public sector communicators are good at playing the internal game. It's what they know. And they excel at cranking out media releases -- a no-brainer skill if ever there was one. Do they know how to do anything different, like reach out to the public in a proactive way? For many, the answer is no. Worse, many of them aren't interested in innovation. So, new ideas on how to use technology, such as social media, to explain the institution to the public, is beyond them.

Resources are tight for most of them, and this is often used as an excuse for inaction on the external file. But reaching external audiences doesn't have to be expensive. Establishing an outreach program for schools and local political and social service leaders wouldn't cost much except in time. Giving a high school class or a city council a tour of a new surgery room would do more to explain health care to the public than a hundred internal newsletters. Getting institution leaders out into the public to meet business leaders or rotary clubs on a  regular basis would cost peanuts, but it would be more effective than a website no one ever goes to.

The place to start is by asking a simple question: what do external audiences know about us? If the answer is "not much", then the external audience isn't getting its due.

Smart ideas exist for making public institutions more public friendly. It's a scandal that too many public sector organization's won't do anything about it.

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