Each year HSToday asks current and former homeland leaders for their views on the top risks and threats to the homeland. Our answer this year? We believe that one of the greatest threats facing government institutions is declining trust from the public they serve, which can manifest in a variety of ways that are detrimental to our shared security goals. Given that “Sunshine Week,” promoting open government, was March 12-18, 2023, we saw an opportunity to reflect on how to improve that trust through rethinking the approach agencies use to communicate with the public they serve in order to better align with how people want to get information.
We want to start by acknowledging that the issue isn’t a lack of commitment to transparency by government agencies, but rather how they are providing it today. For example, when government agencies are building and rolling out new programs – such as how CBP and TSA are improving aviation passengers’ experience by offering passengers the option to use facial recognition in place of traditional human ID reviews, informed by two decades of DHS S&T and NIST algorithm accuracy testing – they, in accordance with the law, often use standard proscribed processes to make written information available to the public: publishing regulations, System of Records Notices, Privacy Impact Assessments, press releases, fact sheets, and their website content. The statutory framework for the regulatory and privacy processes were originated decades ago with the aim of “Government in the Sunshine” and greater government transparency. While the materials produced by agencies contain extremely valuable information, they’re not all well suited to our current information culture and environment. Unless you’re a government insider, you often don’t even think to or know how to look for them. And if you do, what you find is a snapshot of information, meaning you then must find the pieces across multiple documents to develop a picture of the current environment.
Similarly, when a particular story or issue is raised – for example, about a specific FBI investigation – in an effort to provide transparency, government agencies expend a significant amount of time looking to gain details and confirm them with the intent that they want to respond once accurately and holistically, rather than multiple times with an evolving narrative. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that by the time government agencies can do this review and clear a response the public’s attention is already onto the next thing with the first narrative, which wasn’t provided by the government agency, being what they remember. Too often those initial narratives were published either by someone without a grounding or knowledge in the subject or, even worse, someone whose distrust in institutions leads them to believe the worst. Within our current environment, these stories (or social media posts) spread rapidly.
Given our current information environment, we recommend agencies change their approach to focus on explainability, in addition to transparency. Transparency means the information is made available, which agencies already do. Explainability means that the government agency presents information in the manner and through the channels best designed to reach the public they serve, their stakeholders, and oversight. To do so, agencies must rethink how they construct the Message, the Channels they use to make it available, and the Timing for its dissemination.
The Message. Agencies need to invest in durable, integrated, easily digestible, and current content that explains what their mission and programs are, including updates and changes as they’re being rolled out, why they’re important, and detail on how they’re accomplished. This content must be conveyed as simply as possible and free of jargon. Often what is being shared is either lofty strategic text or written as if the audience is a crisis command post or peer government agency. By creating this detailed, easy-to-understand content and context, agencies can answer questions related to current operational activity against this well-thought-out backdrop. Where this information is more readily available and accessible, those who want to get the story right can, and those who don’t want to can more readily be contradicted. TSA has creatively excelled in this area winning three “Webby” Awards, an international award honoring excellence on the Internet. TSA’s humor filled posts are both informative about what is and is not allowable in a carry-on while also being trend-worthy, with Rolling Stone magazine ranking TSA’s Instagram account as number four out of 100 accounts, one slot above Beyonce’s.
The Channels. Agencies need to promote a multi-channel, multi-media approach, enabling time sensitive information to get out with historical information able to be rapidly searched and accessed. Too often government institutions are reliant upon the relationships they have with a handful of traditional media sources through their resource-limited offices of public affairs. Unfortunately, this means important details are missed as media stories look to fit in the 750-word limit and to make publication deadlines. In contrast, industry publications, like HSToday, are incentivized by demonstrating their ability to get the details right. LinkedIn, which for some is viewed as merely a mechanism for seeking post-government employment, is also one of the first places many look for announcements of events, activities, and new programs from government, industry, and private-sector companies. Short videos, rather than articles, published through social media are strongly preferred by more recent generations. One of the most-viewed YouTube videos of the FBI (at 14 million views) is not something they produced themselves, but rather was a partnership with social media influencer Michelle Khare in her “I Tried” series titled “I Tried FBI Academy”.
The Timing. Finally, government agencies need to rethink the frequency of their communications. The marketing industry in the 1930s developed the “rule of seven,” which meant that a potential customer needed to hear an advertiser’s message seven times before taking any action to buy the product or service. In today’s world that number has been vastly eclipsed by the sheer volume of information that is available both positive and negative. This means that the less institutions engage, the more space there is for others to fill the gap and create the narratives. Agencies must get their message out so that the public has access to that context in advance of a crisis. Without realizing it, today many agencies are involved in this type of activity on specific issues – a concept called “pre-bunking”. For example, in the run-up to the midterm elections the FBI and CISA put out a joint public service announcement saying cyberattacks were not likely to disrupt voting. Agencies should adopt this as a standard practice – assessing the risk of potential misinformation and proactively explaining what they are doing, why, and how it protects the American public.
For the coming year, homeland security professionals would be well served to incorporate and implement the best practices of marketing and public relations, evolving the tools we use to meet our open government and public accountability goals to our current information environment. Through focusing on explainability, refining the message, the channels through which it is distributed, and the timing of the messages, government institutions can lay the foundation for rebuilding and maintaining trust.
The views expressed here are the writers’ and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].