February 14, 2005 By Blake Harris
It occurred to me recently that government must almost reinvent the subject of public relations if it is to actually involve and serve citizens broadly in this age of electronic information.
With the free flow of information offered by blogs and the web, the habits, traditions and principles of old school PR -- what the general public increasingly has come to regard as "spin" --largely fails government in the long run today. Modern attempts to influence and control public opinion by controlling information too rigidly only seems to create greater misunderstanding, more mistrust, and a growing gulf between citizens and their government. The proof of that is easily found in general public mistrust for government and corporate leaders -- the very people who most utilize public relations professionals to help fashion and deliver their messages.
Democracy only thrives with open, transparent government. Usually this is concept is framed in terms of access to information. But in an age of information overload, simple access isn't enough. Increasingly, for open government to work, there needs to be effective communication of vital information so citizens can actually appreciate and understand not only the challenges government faces, but also the choices being made to meet those challenges. And this would seem to suggest that a new style of spin-free public sector public relations is desperately needed to provide a real communications bridge between government and citizens.
In other words, open government does not just imply that information is available some place where a researcher with enough savvy and diligence can dig it up. Information actually has to be pushed out through the information noise to connect. And this information has to be what citizens need to know -- the good and the bad, the successes and failures, and the realistic options for the future.
So the job of public sector public relations is not to provide spin, which the public increasingly sees through anyway, but rather to find ways to communicate a broad spectrum of information to citizens so they actually get it. And that is far more challenging than simply spinning messages in an attempt to make a client look good.
In talking last year to Rolf Jensen, former director of The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies and author of The Dream Society, this was one thing he mentioned that really didn't end up in the interview we ran. He suggested that governments had to start communicating honestly and openly to reach citizens -- talking as one human being to another. Otherwise people increasingly would just turn off. That idea has considerable merit.
What lies behind the blog phenomena? It is people just talking to people. And for many, that has become a more real level of communication than what they get from the mainstream media or from their government and social leaders.
And in the spirit of talking person to person, let me explain what led me to these conclusions...
I've been writing about government and information technology for well over a decade now. Yet one thing still manages to surprise me on occasion. I know it, yet tend to forget it and then rediscover it all over again.
This is that government is filled with people who sincerely want to do a good job serving citizens by making things better. Moreover, government also has a lot of very smart people doing their darnedest to set correct priorities, to find solutions
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