Episode #31: Best Practices in Federal Communications

  • we@designindc.com
  • May 21, 2023


Announcement: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia. You are now listening to The Highlight Cast. 

Emilie Scantlebury: I am Emilie Scantlebury, the Director of Corporate Portfolio Development at Highlight. Communication is core to providing constituents with key resources. Information and initiatives. Each agency is faced with variety of obstacles to overcome to reach its target audiences. Our team helps government teams with these challenges. Today, we will chat through federal focus, targeting diverse audiences, accessibility, and structuring procurement of these opportunities. We welcome Barry Lawrence, communications program manager and our mission solutions, BD portfolio director, Tom Perkins. Welcome Barry. Welcome Tom. Thank you, Emily. 

Tom Perkins: Hello.

Emilie Scantlebury: All right, let’s dive right in. So, when we say federal strategic communications, help me understand, what falls under that umbrella? What type of services are we providing our customers? Any kind of context you can give our audience? 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, thank you. You know, this is really the age of communications. If you think about it, almost everything that happens within the federal government touches communications and services.

Some way, so, you know, in the most simplistic way, of course, we think of communications in terms of reaching audiences and reaching the media and talking to our constituents and stakeholders. But it’s also internal communications that we have to worry about often, because if the internal message is wrong, the external message is wrong. So things like the I. T. departments. That we sometimes work with, they need to communicate what they’re rolling out, how they’re rolling it out and how it’s useful. So communications is really enveloping all kinds of areas these days, including the important customer service one. 

Emilie Scantlebury: That’s interesting. I think you covered an important topic. I want to expound upon. You highlighted the importance of internal comms matching external comms. Can you help our audience? Understand? What are some of the things that might fall under internal communications and some of the things that fall under external communications? 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, so I’ll use the example over at the National Institute. So, health, where we work today, lots of things change in terms of grants and funding policy and procedures. So, we certainly have to communicate those things to stakeholders and the audience. And also, though, we have to make sure internally that people are also up on those changes and, in essence, no. Exactly what it is that has changed and how they can guide the audience through the process. So those things have to work hand in hand or, you know, end up with a big mess. Right? So we really want that internal communication solid and it matches what we’re saying externally. 

Emilie Scantlebury: Okay, 

Barry Lawrence: thanks, Gary. Go ahead, 

Emilie Scantlebury: Tom.

Tom Perkins: I would add with respect to external communications. So we are very often talking to the range of federal departments and agencies and our customers across those organizations. And it’s always helpful to kind of put ourselves in shoes as a former federal employee. It’s very helpful. And what are the areas that they’re looking for support for information, um, to have those trusted, meaningful discussions. It’s, um, it’s always a good practice to kind of do your homework. What are the things that they’re looking for and. And have, you know, those. The latest ideas and innovations that they’re very interested in and learning about, um, those, I think, are critical to paving the way to a good, not just 1 time discussion, but ongoing dialogue with them and, you know, improved information sharing between both parties.

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, that’s a great comment, Tom. I mean, it’s not a one way or one time deal. You know, a lot of times we can start with internal and learn some things internally that affects the external communications and vice versa. We can learn lots of things from our external communications that we can bring back to change our policies, procedures, and even the way we talk to our customers. So that’s a great point. Tom. It’s not a one and done. It’s a continuous evolution.

Emilie Scantlebury: That’s helpful. Thanks to you both on that. And Barry, you started a question for me. Um, firstly, can we talk about some of the unique differences between commercial and private comms and federal and public communications and anything that you can share on how those two markets are learning from each other? So how federal comms are looking at commercial and vice versa? 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I actually came from a private sector world and gravitated Happily towards the federal sector. And so the funnel that we look at for communications, they’re a little bit different in both areas. So, in the, in the private world, we’re looking to draw people into a funnel, um, you know, make them aware that we are selling something typically, and we’re driving them through that funnel to all the way to a purchase. Right? Well, in the federal government, if you think about it. We’re not really asking in most cases for people to buy anything. We’re trying to get them through a funnel of information or what to do or they need to accomplish something. So it’s more about I’m aware that I have to do something and this is where I go. Take me through that funnel. So I understand what it is I need to do to get my grants and funding approved or to get my driver’s license or what have you all the way through the end where we hopefully can even turn some of those people into advocates of the program that can help other customers get through the process. So that’s the major difference. If I was going to say anything else, it would be that, um. In all honesty, I feel like the private sector is a little bit ahead of the government sector in terms of some of those tools and technologies to get people through the tunnel. But we’re trying to quickly catch up because we live today in an Amazon world where people, it’s, you know, go into a system of Amazon. Amazon already knows what you want before you even do it. Tell them what you want, where they go to the government and those systems are not as developed yet. We’ve got to start matching that or we’re going to find that our customer service won’t be held in the same steam as it, as it is over at Amazon. And people expect that today.

Emilie Scantlebury: Barry, let’s zero in on the strategic element of strategic communications. You’ve highlighted some needs for some new tools and technologies, but are there any particular parts of that strategic side that kind of map into that need? 

Barry Lawrence: Correct, so we’re talking again about that funnel and that information funnel for government. So 2 things come to mind. 1 is. Targeting and that’s your basic demographics. You know, what, what’s your job title? What do you do at work? What do you need? And I think what’s what we’re missing is the second part of that funnel is where are you in the journey? The journey map we call it. So am I just now? Understanding that I need to get my driver’s license or i’m I didn’t even know there was a grants and funding opportunity And so i’m at the very top of that funnel, right? And that’s a much different Way that we need to communicate with that person and someone who’s already in it and needs a little push to go forward or or is unsure about process or a technique. So I think you can see there’s sort of 2 types of targeting there and we need to get much better at personalizing. Those communications to those different people. And we’ll probably end up talking about this later, Tom, I’m sure, which, you know, AI is, is also kind of helping us. And we’re seeing that big time in the private sector, drive some of those capabilities.

Tom Perkins: Yes, certainly 1 ad is I’ve heard from a longtime federal CIO is that as they look at how to maximize the always limited resources they’ve got, you know, they’ll say every every federal budget dollar that they have is is obligated or it’s it’s spoken for. Until the next best idea comes along, so they are a sponge. They are looking for what are those next best ideas there in the business of analysis of alternatives. What are better alternatives? They’re looking for what’s the latest and greatest that we’ve seen that’s being implemented successfully in the private sector at other of our customer agencies. So, they are looking for other solutions and in terms of external communications, we always need to provide, you know, these are some other use cases, alternatives that are worth looking at, taking a closer look at versus what their current plan might be. And that is very much coming into play. As emerging technologies are taking hold, especially in the federal space, whether it’s, it’s a, I, or, or the range of other emerging technologies that enable them to. To better achieve their mission.

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, there’s a blogger this week who said. This is the age of that blogger’s name happened to be Bill Gates and I take his stuff pretty seriously. You know, he’s been pretty good at defining trends these days. And communication fits really well into AI. AI doesn’t mean we can automate everything, but we can automate some things. And I think what we’re seeing is, for example, Adobe just rolled out something called Firefly. So by simply typing words about a graphic that you want and describing the graphic, With words, mind you, you get a, you get a graphic, you know, so it’s like, I want a tent in a desert because I’m selling this tent in the desert. And the next thing you know, you’ve got a tent in the desert. Nice and wonderfully wrapped up for you. We’re seeing this in a. AI in this sort of productivity way, where it doesn’t replace what we do as communicators, but it becomes sort of like our co pilot that helps us, right? So we can sort of have AI write even some of our content, at least the first draft. And then we can, as humans, jump on top of that and say, okay, this is not right. We need to fix this and we need to target this here and there, but you can sort of see some of those productivity advantages that are. Right on the break and it’s stuff. I think that the fed government loves productivity. So we really have to start thinking about some of those issues.

Emilie Scantlebury: Thanks, Barry. So just to repeat back, I’m hearing a lot about the advantages of using AI to increase productivity, but it could also be taken to think about increasing effectiveness and helping us build metrics or to what you were sharing earlier about understanding our users and where they are in their user journey, or, you know, perhaps how they move through that, that tunnel that you were 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, Emily, I think in the old days we used to call that Big data, if you think about it, what we have out there is people chatting and talking and all sorts of channels. You know, they are on different social media channels. They’re responding to your web content. They might be responding to a chat bot, which we have developed over at the NIH program. What we’re getting out there was just a lot of noise, right? Until you get a little help and I can come into play to sort of start reading. Those messages that are happening all around us, pull them in and give us some highlights on, hey, this is what customers are worried about or frustrated with or need more help with what have you. And so I can definitely help us in those targeting and and that journey mapping that I talked about previously. So, yes, I is also playing a role in that function. 

Emilie Scantlebury: Fantastic. I think a question from my side, are there any challenges that AI or any other technology is helping address? And if so, what are, what are some of those challenges? Can you help us understand those?

Barry Lawrence: I think it’s a is money. You know, we, we’ve got to, we’ve got to say, do we want to invest as a government agency in this process? Right. And so that’s not going to come free. But yet we think we can make that back on the productivity side. So, yes, it’s an investment in money, but we think, I think at least that over time, that’ll, that’ll make us a better group of federal agencies. It’ll reduce the amount of time it takes to produce all this content. Let me just give you another example, you know, and I hate to, you know, I won’t name a name, but but there are platforms out there today. So when you go and and put something in different social media channels, and even advertisements and social different channels, right? They’re all different sizes and shapes. And today we’ve been making those changes 1 at a time, right? Well, this is not even AI. This is just a really good. piece of application where we can now make that change one time and have it go across all our different channels. So these types of technologies, again, are not coming free, but they have a huge impact on productivity. And we’ve got to sort of teach the federal government that it’s worth the investment, just like it was back in the, uh, You know, early days that we were investing in information technology and websites and, and the Internet, right? I mean, this is just another huge inflection point, a new era of communications.

Tom Perkins: I would add, you know, we’ve passed the point at many of the agencies, whether to consider incorporating it as as part of their solution. And it’s, it’s more to what extent and which particular solutions do they want to. Try to add it and there are numerous examples that we’re seeing now across federal departments agencies where they’re going through the exercise of how best to incorporate AI in the end. In some cases. They may not fully utilize the AI solution, but as part of the exercise, they’ve found how to better streamline the workflow, how to make it more efficient. So, that alone is, is, um, produced a huge benefit in terms of cost savings, speeding up the process, making the agency more responsive to the, to the mission. There are Accompanying challenges requirements that pop up. Many of us are familiar with. All right. If there’s a. A workflow that was previously provided by federal staff, and now we’ve got an AI solution. Uh, what happens to that to that staff? And that’s where going back to the communication. The agency, the drivers of incorporating AI always have to. Be in communication with the team and part of the strategy is to repurpose or utilize those who are working at some of the processes now done by AI to other, you know, badly needed. Parts of the workflow of accomplishing the mission for the agency. So a big part of incorporating AI is that communication with the team. And here are the other critical mission activities that we want to have you doing instead of what the AI solution can now do. 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought that up because it’s not all technology. It’s not even all about spending money. A lot of times. This is about solid process and even just solid project management, even I, you know, a lot of times it’s about just making sure that everybody has. A good solid strategy going into their communications initiative that they have a plan that they’re executing on the plan. We see that a lot of times where we’re coming in and and we’re not just focused on. On the job of communications, but we’re also focused on, did we plan this out? Right? Did we give ourselves enough time for review? Did we, did we ask all the right questions? Those things. Are very human behaviors and things we can improve on all the time. We don’t have to wait for technology for that. We can improve those right away.

Emilie Scantlebury: Here’s a question for you, would you contest that good, solid project management and process requires good, solid internal communications practices inherently itself.

Barry Lawrence: Absolutely, I think they go hand in hand. You know, Emily, I often joke that communicators are some of the worst project managers in the world and vice versa. Some of the project managers are the worst communicators in the world. Well, there seems to be a marriage that can happen there. Right? So we really would like to see something we. We kid around with we call it compound sometimes, but we really think that communications, for example, can be very successful, but the project piece was the project manager piece was not very good. Is that a win? Well, yeah, we did well with the communications, but we tied up a lot of resources and strain the system here. So we’d like to see both of those things. You know, parallel in their importance, and that is a real win if we can get the project management piece of communications up to a level that’s more efficient.

Emilie Scantlebury: Thanks, Barry. I want to pivot us a little bit here. So what we’re talking about throughout this podcast has been about targeting your audience to deliver personal messages in the space that they’re at and building trust with those audiences. But what we’re seeing across our federal agencies is a push to ensuring that that audience is wide. It covers all demographics. All of us need a driver’s license. All of us maybe have a need for a grant moving forward. So how are we building campaigns? How do you look at campaigns for diversity, whether it’s cultural diversity, age, disability, Section 508, anything of that nature?

Barry Lawrence: Yeah. We have to do the research 1st of all, some of that research is just contextually where you’re trying to understand your audiences, maybe even using the Internet to get a general flavor of what’s going on. It’s, it’s identifying, you know, specific influencers and what they’re saying. So not only do you have different demographics we’ve seen in the last. Decade or so, you know, people don’t even believe things that we’re saying sometimes, even if they’re actually true. So, we have to find the right influencers that will persuade that audience this way or that, right? I mean, it’s very complicated. So a lot of that is doing the background work, the SWOT analysis, right? And it’s also heavily, you know. functional with things like focus groups and surveys and wearing out shoe leather in those communities of interest so that we really understand them. There’s no short answer to that, Emily. It’s, it’s really where the hard work comes in. And again, AI can help, but it’s a very human process too.

Tom Perkins: I would add to Barry’s point to do the homework long ago. 1 of my, my mentors when I worked in the U. S. trade representatives office, our U. S. trade rep, Charlene Barshefsky would always say when you’re going into a trade negotiation. No more than any of the other negotiators are going to know. Going into that room, do your homework. There’s no way around it. Track and find out all of the information. Be best prepared. So having that in hand will serve well for many of those discussions 

Barry Lawrence: and let me try to bring it, make it a little more clear for our audience with an example, when I was at the FCC, working with the I. T. department, trying to communicate to the internal audience of, you know, FCC staffers, right? Well, guess what? They’re all different. There are staffers who are very tech savvy. There are staffers who aren’t very tech savvy, right? There are people heading each of the divisions within the FCC that have IT experience. So we very quickly learned that the way we could best communicate to each of those audiences was different. And in fact, we could even use. Some of the groups within those departments as influencers to help push things down or the leader of that group. Right? That division. So each 1 of those channels within the channel were very important. And by the way, Emily, we didn’t know that. When we went in, so adjusting your communication on the go is super important, super important. So have a plan. And as we all know, as soon as you start executing your plan, it’s like probably no good anymore, right? So you have to keep moving that plan into a different space or a different strategy so that, so that it works more effectively. You know, it’s not, again, one and done. It’s constant evolution. And again, with tools that can Reach out and bring back even more information. We not only have to adjust within a day or a week, but often even in real time. 

Emilie Scantlebury: So. Let’s talk about post COVID in a post COVID world, reaching our audiences, whether that be government stakeholders, or even federal workers in a BD and capture space has changed. So, Barry, can you talk a little bit about those changes? You know, what new types of needs have we seen any increases or changes to how we’re reaching those audiences? And then Tom, can you do the same on the BD capture side? 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, what we saw with COVID during that period is tremendous growth, first of all, in a couple things. One was our ability to use virtual spaces. It grew really fast. In that three year period, we moved ahead 10 years and in technology, in my opinion, what happened was, you know, we also had better bandwidth. Right? So we all remember the old days of Skype and it’s like, you know, right? All that stuff. Right? So we have a much smoother platform today with things like zoom and other capabilities, you know, including Microsoft teams, but, you know, You know, that gave us tremendous ability to, like, reach bigger audiences. To give you an example, we were doing conferences for people in real space, and we would get about 900 people in a real space somewhere. You know, it was a nice, nice event to learn about how to make their grants and funding program work better. So they can improve their science, improve their medicine, improve their medical equipment. COVID came, blew all that up, and it forced us to take on a virtual conference setting. Well, lo and behold, we were suddenly getting 15, 000 people. Sometimes, look, this past year we had 32, 000 registrations. It’s incredible. So, we were reaching people from all the states and even internationally. We were At this point, the NIH is so happy with the virtual platform that we may not immediately go back to the in person setting that we once were in.

Tom Perkins: Yeah, I would add from the, the business development and capture world, you know, the ideas we’re always trying to find out as much as possible about upcoming requirements challenges that an agency or department may face. As well as want to share how best we might be able to possibly support those challenges requirements when cobit hit. Oh, no, everything shut down. Everyone’s stuck in their Corona caves and can’t communicate as as much and and perception much frustration about being able to reach out and have those those discussions. Um, I’m a cup is half full type of person. And now that we’ve. Come out of it largely, although there’s some, you know, hybrid as well as still a lot of remote activity. My thinking and what I’ve seen is that we’ve gained an additional capability, another mechanism, another way to improve our communication back and forth between a lot of what industry does and can share. And what are the challenges and new requirements that a department or agency may face in person is great. And we’re getting back to that in many cases, but we do have this other capability. Now, we can get online and chat with folks where previously that may not have thought of it or may not have been as a medium that we’re as accustomed to. Today, I think a great many of us were, we can kind of seamlessly. Okay, we’ll do a zoom or teams call versus, hey, let’s meet in person pre cobit. That additional. Communication channel is certainly not as readily accepted or utilized. So, again, cup half full. We do have an additional means or mechanism to share that info. In person is great is best, but we do have this additional mechanism. Like I said, to deepen dialogue. 

Barry Lawrence: That makes me think to Tom, we’ve also learned that there’s some snags with these virtual communication channels. So, for example, you know, in the old days when I was. On site with a federal client, you know, I could. Walk around and hey, how’s it going? You know, meet somebody at the water cooler and get an update. On a project that I didn’t know something was Either delayed or maybe it was moving faster than I thought it was We don’t have that ability as much anymore. And what I noticed sometimes is people won’t call someone or Even email them to get a clarification, so we have to almost over communicate even more in the virtual world. And sometimes that gets lost. I think. And so that’s something we’ve been working with our clients on a lot is to make sure we are understanding what they’re saying and even repeat it back a couple of ways, either orally and in writing so that we make sure we’re hitting the marks because so many things can get lost. You know, in the virtual communication setting, so it has major benefits. Absolutely. But we have to overcompensate for some of those communications lags. I think as well.

Emilie Scantlebury: A lot of information and take in here, and I want to, as we start to wrap up here, I want to take us back very, if you could give 1 piece of advice to a stakeholder looking to implement a strategic communications. What would that be? What would that look like? Barry, if you want to start us off. 

Barry Lawrence: Yeah, well, first of all, find a partner that has experience, because if they don’t have experience in your sector, that’s a negative, right? So have an experienced partner, have one that’s flexible. And what I mean by that is, you know, you know what you need, right, going into a communications execution, but you don’t always know what you don’t know. And so you’ve got to not only depend on the people that are core staff, a lot of times in the communications world, but you got to build on a bench of people that you’re sometimes pulling in just for a moment in time. And, you know, to complete that execution and then they get then they leave again. So that’s something we try really hard to do and highlight is to have a deep bench of people so that we can, you know, oh, we need a infographic. We didn’t think of that. Okay, so we pull in a graphics person or video because we have such great bandwidth today. We’re seeing more and more video executions. You probably don’t need video full time, but often you need somebody who can step in or a technical writer who can step in on something. That’s my big advice is, you know, plan ahead, but know that you’re going to need a flexible organization to work with to make your communications work the best. 

Tom Perkins: And looking at it, you know, particularly from the business development capture standpoint, um, a lot of folks in that field are what I would term, you know, relentless communicators, uh, COVID, no COVID, they’ll figure out a way to communicate and get that info shared. Uh, but, uh, harking back to some of the themes we’ve been talking about earlier, it does pay to do your homework. What’s the best way that. The particular audience and who you want to dialogue with likes to communicate. Maybe some like to do a teams call versus some I’d like to meet in person. Try to find that out beforehand. And as well, you know, what are some of the key concerns they may have the better prepared, the more productive, not just 1 time conversation, but ongoing dialogue you can have with them.

Barry Lawrence: Thanks, Tom. So in addition, I think it’s really important that we tie communications. Into the CX or the customer experience piece because those two things should be married together. We are not just communicating to communicate. We have a presidential order that we must improve. Federal government service, and what I hope is that the communicators within the federal world and the customer service people are getting together because those 2 things need to work in unison. We need to learn from each other. And I think we’ll find some really nice benefits from that.

Emilie Scantlebury: Well, thank you, Barry. And thank you, Tom. And thanks to our audience for listening to the Highlight Cast. To keep up to date with Highlight’s news and activities, follow us on LinkedIn and visit our website, HighlightTech. com. Tune in for our next episode and see you all there. 

The views and opinions expressed in this episode are those of the hosts and do not necessarily reflect Highlight Technologies and or any agency of the U. S. government.