2013 Retrospective: Death To The Campaign

I had been planning to write about how I dislike how governments seem to have an over-dependence on campaign-based communications. Last year, I got the perfect opportunity when a great friend, Alex Bornkessel, posted something on exactly that topic. I thought it would be a simple post, but then my great British friends took over and have regularly flogged it to the top of my posts.

But it didn’t stop there. The incomparable Emma Rodgers posted a response a few months ago that didn’t exactly agree with me, and she makes some great points. Definitely be sure to read mine AND hers, found here.

When I started this Your Audience is a Lie thing, I was hoping to parlay it into a nice little series. Unfortunately, before I could finish it with my bold prediction of what your jobs as government communicators will look like in a few years, one of the smartest and most dedicated people I know in health communications beat me to the punch. Alex Bornkessel, who runs an amazing MS charity with her family, called for death to the campaign this past weekend and I couldn’t agree more.

This idea that campaign-focused communications actively works against our goals of affecting real change (whether it be health-focused, preparedness-focused, or some other goal) in two different ways. First, it assumes that our audience is there, available, placid and interested, during the time we decide they should hear our messages. If they are otherwise ready to lose weight, or set up a communications plan, or change the batteries in their smoke detectors, except for some family crisis that happens during our predefined “campaign time,” then they don’t get the message that they need to change their behavior. (This is a HUGE reason I despise days, weeks and months that celebrate or raise awareness for something; what, tuberculosis doesn’t matter the other 364 days of the year?)

The other reason only communicating through campaigns is harmful is, in my estimation, infinitely worse. Say your timing works out and you get lucky and actually find someone who was patiently waiting for your message. Not only that, but the message is specifically tailored to the group she self-identifies with (because you’re still marketing to audiences and not everyone), and she takes action on it. She’s moved from Contemplation to Preparation based solely on your messaging. Congratulations! But, what happens when you end your campaign? Specifically, what happens to this wonderful person that you’ve prepped to be ready to move forward and actually change her behavior? Does she not move to the Action stage? Does she resent your messaging for leaving her hanging, alone? Is she willing to wait another year for you to become interested in her problem again? Will she even listen next time?

Alex puts the problem into specific relief here, and even offers the solution we’ve been talking about:

Traditional mass media models that follow TV PSAs, direct mail, radio announcements and the like allow us to safely distance ourselves from the nitty-gritty hard work of transforming our world. It puts us a hands distance from actually interacting with and serving our people. It’s time to roll up our sleeves.

Our work is no longer about building a one-and-done campaign, but about creating shared experiences and building movements. To build bridges, we have to walk side-by-side with those we want to not only reach, but truly engage.

Her post is called Shifting from Campaign to Cause, which is sublime in it’s understanding of the problem. If we really want to affect change, we have to believe that our message is good enough for everyone, whenever they are ready to hear it, and understand that they’ll have questions and concerns and complaints and praise, and that it’s part of our job to find those comments and questions important and valid and respond to them.

Honestly, if we’re not invested enough in our work to do that, why are we even messaging?

2013 Retrospective: Week Two, Most Engaging

Things are changing around here, and I wanted to highlight the best of the blog during December, 2013. The first week is devoted to my favorite guest posts and posters. The second week is devoted to my three most engaging posts. The third and fourth weeks count down my top six most trafficked posts, truly, the best of the best. These overview posts will have links to each of the posts for the week.

Stay tuned to all of my posts for the rest of the week as I highlight my top three, most engaging posts. On social media, we’ve started counting engagement as opposed to just followers. My most engaging posts, like those listed below, show how successful social media can be at stimulating a conversation and bringing people together.

First up, Dan Slee, local gov extraordinaire, loves this post on campaigns and why they should die. It is regularly shared in the storied halls of British local governments (or so I’m told).
Secondly, we talked about why you pay too much attention at conferences, and you should be livetweeting. This post got the most comments of any post that I’ve ever written.
Finally, the second most commented-on post I’ve written is courtesy of PIO Marcus Deyerin, whose series on the I-5 Skagit Bridge Collapse was highlighted last week during our celebration of guest posts. This post was all about how vital social media was to the response.

2013 Retrospective: Aphl And 9/11

This is just the first of an absolutely riveting walk through the events of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed from the perspective of someone who was at the forefront of the nation’s response. It is one of my favorite series ever, and I was honored to be able to host it.

The following is a guest post by Scott J. Becker, MS, Executive Director, APHL. It is also available on the APHL blog here.

Everyone has a story of when their life changed forever. It could be before kids or after kids – or a traumatic life event like the death of a spouse, or a happy event like graduating from university. For an entire generation it was 9/11 and the anthrax events that soon consumed those of us in public health.

Like many of you, I remember exactly where I was when the towers fell. I was on my way to deliver a keynote address to the Mississippi Public Health Association and the topic was Branding Public Health. Upon landing in Atlanta, I called my hosts to let them know when I was due to land in Jackson, and heard that there was some “trouble” but that we should be in touch when I landed. I then started to pick up snippets of conversation around me, words that sent a chill down my spine. “Bombing… New York… Washington…” were just a few. I jumped back on the phone to call my wife to ask her to please go pick up our 5 month old daughter, Sophie, at daycare. You see, that very day was Sophie’s first full day in daycare, and the daycare center was a few blocks from the White House. I caught my wife back at home in Bethesda, who immediately turned on the TV, and then headed back downtown. I wandered the terminal for a minute or two, trying to wrap my head around what I was hearing and then called a colleague at CDC, realizing that I would be stuck in Atlanta. He offered me his office and I headed up after encountering the longest taxi line I’ve ever seen (I was quick; I got out in 20 minutes. Folks that waited longer
were there most of the day).

Once I got to CDC it was apparent what had transpired. And then CDC was evacuated, as it was deemed a possible target by the unknown enemies. We had now moved into our new life, but were too numb to understand it. Soon thereafter I checked into a hotel, and joined many others glued to a TV. We were a new “family” of sorts, all of us
stuck together in this unfolding national tragedy. I was finally able to get a call back to my wife and was relieved to learn that she had gotten Sophie out of DC, even before the Pentagon was attacked. Sitting there, I learned that my flight that morning left Dulles the same time as the one used by the terrorists that flew into the
Pentagon.

Hearing that sent me into action; I needed to get home. Through divine intervention and many phone calls, I secured a one-way car rental the next day. Virginia’s lab director Jim Pearson, APHL staff Jeff Jacobs (now with ASCP) and I drove straight home. No planes in the sky; no cars on the road; patriotic signs on many overpasses from
Georgia to Maryland. After 12 hours of travel we came over a small hill on 395 in Arlington and looked down on the smoldering black hole in the Pentagon complete with the American flag… and the quiet almost desolate city of Washington just beyond.

What I couldn’t quite grasp was exactly how our world was now completely different. There were Humvees on every corner, security officers with guns and policemen… just about everywhere. Our city, like New York, was transformed overnight. So were our professional lives, particularly for those of us working in public health.

At APHL, we’d been focused on lab preparedness for terrorism since 1999, when we constructed the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) with CDC and the FBI. But on this day, September 12, 2001, the once obscure threat was palpable; it was real. We worked with CDC to ensure that all the state labs had the tests, materials and equipment they needed
in case a threat was made to human health in some sort of attack. We made sure that all of the contact lists were accurate and that we knew with whom to consult if needed. The LRN went onto a high state of alert – we were on the lookout for any suspicious samples or specimens. Our members were told to report anything out of the ordinary, no matter how small it seemed. Everyone was on edge, and for good reason. News reports were issued daily (for weeks) and used terms like “biological or chemical warfare,” “possible use of bioweapons,” “biowarfare,” or “smallpox.” And then the question was being asked first privately and then publicly: “Are we prepared?” That question is still with us and always will be – the real question is for what and for how long?

Vice President Cheney was particularly concerned as President Bush had asked him upon his inauguration to take charge of overseeing intelligence matters and to conduct a study of the nation’s vulnerability to biological weapons and terrorism in general. One vulnerability identified was access to dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, plague and pandemic strains of influenza viruses. And public health labs had access.

On October 2nd, all the possibilities of bioterrorism became a reality. It was on that day that an infectious disease physician recognized a possible case of inhalational anthrax in a man who was hospitalized in Palm Beach, FL. The local health official immediately began an investigation which included having the patient’s clinical
specimen sent to a lab for diagnosis. The clinical lab couldn’t rule out anthrax, so according to protocol, they contacted Dr. Phil Lee, the Biological Defense Coordinator for the Bureau of Laboratories at the Florida Department of Health Lab in Jacksonville. Once he received the specimen (On Wednesday October 3rd at noon) he began the analysis immediately. The series of tests took less than 24 hours, and early on Thursday October 4th he confirmed what is now known as the index case of anthrax. All eyes were on Florida as the index case worked and lived there, and CDC was sending investigators to his work place, AMI Media, to figure out how this could have happened.

Since the Florida anthrax case followed the 9/11 attacks so closely, it was unclear what we were dealing with, but we were at the ready.

2013 Retrospective: Skagit River Bridge Collapse

Marcus Deyerin is a good friend. Marcus is also one of the smartest, most forwarded thinking emergency response PIOs in the US. His account of the response to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River was not only riveting, it was full of best practices. Not best practices like you should do this and that, but instead best practices like this is how I did it and it worked. These posts should be required reading for EMA PIOs.

Skagit Bridge Collapse Personal Lessons Learned
Marcus Deyerin
PIO
Northwest Washington Incident Management Team

Initial Response
A few people have asked me how I was possibly on-scene so quickly. Pure coincidence. My son participates in an athletic activity about a mile from the bridge collapse scene. I heard one, then two, then multiple sirens – and you don’t have to be an emergency manager type for that to get your attention. I opened up a radio scanner app I have, and the first words I heard were “I-5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River…”. I didn’t need to hear it again for confirmation – the number of sirens in the air was confirmation enough. I immediately grabbed my son and we headed to the scene. I knew exactly how to get there quickly since it’s a route I often run while my son is at his activity.

When I arrived, I quickly recognized the on-scene incident commander, the local fire chief and a former team member on the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team (NWIMT). I let him know I was there, but then just stepped back and stayed out of his way. After about 15-20 minutes I again approached the IC and asked if I could help in any way. That’s when he remembered my PIO role on the IMT and asked if I’d be willing to fulfill that function there on-scene.

With phones not working and the “field” nature of the scene, Twitter was the obvious and best platform for communicating information to the public. I spent about 3 minutes trying to get my team Twitter account functioning (more on that below), and then gave up and just started tweeting incident information from my personal account.

Phone and SMS
The phone system was impacted quickly (which I expected), but much more broadly than I would have anticipated. My colleague who was located up in Bellingham reported trouble making phone calls about the same time I lost my ability to call out. Here’s what my notes and phone logs reflect:

6:55pm – bridge collapses
7:10pm – I arrive on scene (estimated)
7:12pm – Outbound call successful (work phone)
7:30pm – Assigned as PIO by on-scene incident commander
7:31pm – First Twitter post sent from scene
7:37pm – Outbound SMS attempt – unsuccessful (personal phone)
7:48pm – Outbound call attempt – unsuccessful (personal phone)
8:09pm – Outbound SMS attempt – unsuccessful (work phone)

I’ve omitted a few redundant attempts from the timeline above for brevity’s sake – but you get the gist.

8:38pm – Washington State Patrol district PIO provides my phone number to media via tweet
8:40pm – First incoming media call
12:03am (Friday) – Last incoming media call before WSDOT took lead as incident PIO.

Personal lessons learned:

  • I don’t normally care for them, but in this situation I really wished I had a bluetooth earpiece for the phone.
  • We (emergency management) have been telling people for some time now that even when the phone lines are overwhelmed, SMS might still work. I think we need to emphasize the “might” element. In this instance, both SMS and phone connectivity started working again in the immediate area within 90 minutes or so. But that’s a long time if it’s your only way to communicate.

—-

Tomorrow, Marcus will be talking about social media during the response, specifically Twitter and a bit about virtual support teams (VOST).

2013 Retrospective: Week One, Guest Posts

Things are changing around here, and I wanted to highlight the best of the blog during December, 2013. The first week is devoted to my favorite guest posts and posters. The second week is devoted to my three most engaging posts. The third and fourth weeks count down my top six most trafficked posts, truly, the best of the best. These overview posts will have links to each of the posts for the week.

Stay tuned to all of my posts for the rest of the week as I highlight three of my absolute favorite guest posts. It’s really tough to hand over the reins of something you’ve poured your life into for the last three plus years and kinda hope for the best. And my guest posters have never disappointed me. Offering truly innovative posts and best-in-the-business writers talking about topics that changed the world, or changed the face of how emergencies are responded to, the three posts I’m highlighting this week are truly excellent. Interestingly, two of the guest posts are part of their own series; the story was too big to tell all at once. Be sure to click through and see the whole story.

First up, we’re talking about a massive storm that engulfed Scotland, and how the Scotch public collectively fought back.
Secondly, PIO Marcus Deyerin gives us a riveting, first-hand account of being the primary information responder at the I-5 Skagit Bridge Collapse.
Finally, we turn to APHL’s Executive Director, Scott Becker, as he looks back to September 11th and that horrible Fall.

Thanksgiving 2013

TL;DR: tradition you don’t know about, y’all rock, mic drop.

Happy Thanksgiving American friends! Happy Unbirthday non-American friends!

So, I’ve got this little tradition of giving you a quick behind the scenes peek at life behind the Face of the Matter, and what a better time to do it than on Thanksgiving. Here’s the story from last year:

Years ago, there was a public health blog, Effect Measure, that had a nice little Thanksgiving tradition. On Thanksgiving, the author would give an update on the blog and thank the many people who he interacted with over the previous year. The story was that the (pseudononymous) author, while waiting for his wife to finish Thanksgiving dinner, started a blog on a whim. The result was wildly successful. I consider that the very first public health blog (without minimizing the amazing contributions of Jordan Barab’s Confined Space blog, which technically started first). The author’s gusto and pseudonymity gave me the courage to blog.

And here we are, nearly SEVEN years later. Am I officially Internet-old now? I keep looking for my Logan’s Run jewel, but nothing yet. I thought last year was great, but this year has been a humdinger. And isn’t that how things are supposed to go?

I got the opportunity to travel and present to amazing audiences all over the country. Meet dozens of amazing people and see friends from too long ago. No pandemic still (yay!), and my Program has great plans for the future. The blog is wildly successful, better than I ever thought it would be. And probably the biggest news is that kid #3 is rapidly winging her way into my burgeoning family’s arms (February 2nd!).

But the news that’s probably most relevant to you, dear reader, is my new job. I’ve been given the okay to let the world know that, as of January 1, I will be moving out of the public health preparedness world and into a brand new position, Director of Digital Public Health, here at my health department.

My job will be to oversee the identification, feasibility, implementation and integration of digital goodness (everything from social media to apps, to APIs to crowdsourcing to mobile and beyond) into our department. I! Am! So! Excited!

With every grand, new endeavor comes change, unfortunately, and the blog is one of those things that will change. (Seriously, new kid AND a new job? I’ll probably sell my soul for a few hours of sleep.) I’m not abandoning it. I love you guys too, too much. But I’m going to be dialing things back a bit. No more three posts a week, at least not for a while. Instead, if I can do a post a week, I’ll be over the moon. Because social media and public information and risk communication is still within my professional purview, we’ll keep talking about them, but we might sprinkle in some of that digital goodness I talked about earlier, too.

Until the new year, though, I wanted to give you a present, something to remember me by. For the next four weeks, I’m going into the stacks of the blog and will be reposting the best posts, the most popular, the ones that–oops–I got wrong, my personal favorites. Three of the best of Jim Garrow, for four weeks. Almost like a countdown.

Which, not exactly coincidentally, is the other tradition we have around these parts. For the last couple of years, Patrice Cloutier, Kim Stephens and I have done a sort of end-of-year holiday countdown. This will be my contribution, and will hopefully serve to demonstrate how far our field of emergency communications and response have come. I’ll definitely be highlighting their work constantly on Twitter, so keep an eye out for that.

And now for the behind the scenes. My traffic this year has been out of this world. I set a new personal daily record, and broke it (302 views). I set new records in weekly and monthly views (3,013 views). I’ve got the most subscribers I’ve ever had (110). Last year, I reported that I’d seen 16,000 views all time, and in just this calendar year, I’ve seen more than 20,600, more than doubling my previous three years of views.

20131127-224645.jpg

Other than longevity, only two things changed this year. First, I’ve presented more, and I direct folks to my about.me page in most of my presentations. But unless I’m the best, most persuasive presenter in the world (hey, it’s possible), that’s doesn’t nearly account for the huge surge in viewership starting in April. What did happen in April was the other thing that changed: I started posting more often. Usually three times a week, sometimes four. Consistently, for weeks on end. And my traffic skyrocketed. For the non-astute among you, there’s a lesson there, I think.

And just to close, I want to thank you all. For everything. You make my work enjoyable, you make me happy. I’m so excited to start on this new adventure with you and hope that you’ll stick around while I get my feet under me. (And wish me luck!)

Whole Community: Approachability

I’m in Lisle, Illinois this week presenting on social media at the 2013 Whole Community Preparedness Conference, sponsored by the Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin Combined Statistical Area. I wanted to talk this opportunity to talk about messaging to our whole community messaging and making our messages easier to understand and receive. As the week goes on, I’ll update this post with links to the other posts.

smd

One of my favorite bloggers in the whole world is also one of my favorite tweeters (Perhaps not coincidentally). Wendy Sue Swanson, or as she’s known on the internet, Seattle Mama Doc, dispenses daily information on health, health care and life raising kids.

I love Dr. Swanson’s real life approach to communication. There is nary a poorly-lit head shot of some white coat to be found anywhere. Her Twitter feed is full of pictures, personal stories, links to health care stories and–gasp–conversations! Dr. Swanson is a real person! That’s step one, and it’s a big one, though really it shouldn’t be.

Her blog, though, is what I want to focus on. It’s a testament to how healthcare providers and healthcare organizations should be blogging. It demonstrates the very essence of approachability.

Blog posts about emotional wellbeing start off like this:

I’ve had an enormously stressful week or so. Seriously maxed out in a way I haven’t been in some time — smooooshed if you will. The reason I mention my stress is that I’ve found in the past, like this week, these stressful episodes are often peppered with moments of mindfulness that penetrate into my life and stick.

Thankfully there are buoys around us that get us through these stressful episodes. A joke our child makes while running by, a story on the radio that allows us to pause, the simple beauty of a red tree passing into sight on the side of the road. Sometimes when we’re most amped and stressed our lenses on life de-fog in a way where the beauty is just crystal clear.

Or a video post about violence in movies:

I was in fourth grade when Red Dawn debuted as the first PG-13 rated movie back in 1985. At the time Red Dawn was released, it was considered one of the most violent films by The National Coalition on Television Violence, with a rate of 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute. And although not every PG-13 movie has had significant violence (think Pretty in Pink) it turns out PG-13 and gun violence have become close bedfellows over the last 28 years.

Yes, she writes beautifully, but the reason she writes so well is because she writes from the heart. The blog posts aren’t full of stern faces and finger-wagging. It’s fun and engaging and personal. And successful. There’s a lesson we can all learn from that. A lesson about approachability.

Whole Community #1: The New Digital Divide

Social Media As Catharsis

Earlier this year, London experienced an horrific situation, where two men brutally murdered another with a machete. Just the description of the event is traumatic enough, but this attack was made all the more real by how it unfolded on social media. Akin to what happens during most disasters today, the attack was livetweeted by a bystander.

What the what? How does… What goes through people’s heads?! Why, in the face of death and destruction, do people feel the need to share these horrible situations? I mean, you can make a case in some disaster situations that social sharing of pictures and descriptions serves some public good: informing people further away about their families, updating emergency responders on the scope of the situation, providing warning on a developing and evolving situation. But a singular attack? TechCrunch asked a similar question after the Asiana Airlines crash earlier this year, too:

Right now, we are rubbernecking on a global level. Good news goes unheard as we fall into an eager chorus of shock and sorrow. Each of us has a choice of whether to simply parrot the problems our world inevitably faces or use our voice to try to solve them. Let’s think before we tweet.

The post is titled, Why Do We Endlessly Retweet Tragedy?, and the question is a good one. Why do we do this? What causes people to let everyone in on this terrible secret that they’ve witnessed? There is some research on why that might be. The situation isn’t completely analogous, but you have to wonder if disastrous shows, like Breaking Bad cause similar feelings. Why do we watch them? Why would we revel in the downfall of a science teacher into a meth kingpin? Scientific American explores the theories:

We often associate words like ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyment,’ or ‘escape’ when we think about our entertainment. These are all hedonic, or pleasurable, rewards of watching TV. But the work of Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, has shown us that entertainment can offer more than enjoyment. In step with the positive psychology movement, Oliver and her colleagues have identified many eudaimonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful, or even horrific television. Eudaimonia is an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaimonia might not make us happy, but it can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves.

Tragedy is a deeply profound experience, and one that has the potential to affect each person for the rest of their lives. Given the humdrum of modern society, that excitement, that explosion of grief, fear and stress can be cathartic and allow us to feel more deeply, live more. To appreciate life. We share because we are alive, because we are feeling something greater than any other day. And if that’s true, there is nothing wrong with it. It’s a natural human reaction that is tied completely to emotions and deep brain functions.

So, what does that mean for us as communicators? It means that as much as we’d like to tell people to stop taking pictures, think before you tweet, stop making the situation worse, the public can’t. They are experiencing life–the bad part, yes, but still–they are alive and bursting at the seams with emotion and fear and dread and being able to talk about it is key to bouncing back from it. From being resilient. From recovering.

So when that next disaster happens, save your messages for what you’re best at and stop chastising the public for doing what might be in their best interest.

The Shrinking Of Media

I’ve talked about nano-news in the past, and how consumers (read: the public) have taken to digesting news in smaller bites. Well, like all good things in a free market society, as a market is identified the entrepreneurs follow.

My first example blows my mind. I’ve talked about short-form video a couple of times on the blog, but I hadn’t heard of how one organization, NowThis News, has used the 15-second long Instagram video tool to pass along news. Mashable reviewed the service here:

Since the launch of Instagram Video in June, media organizations have experimented with 15-second video as a news vehicle. However, there is a clear divide between the strategies of legacy news organizations and newer startups.

Traditional media organizations more often use Instagram Video to promote news content, rather than to break actual news. But startup NowThis News is flipping the social media/PR model upside down by using Instagram Video as its main vehicle to deliver breaking news and featured news briefs.

NPR, though, to their credit, are doing something similar.

The second half of the shrinking media story is about the scope of the stories. As 24-hour news networks came online, it allowed news organizations to broaden the scope of their operations and cover LOTS of stories. As time progressed, the coverage of those stories got more and more shallow. A mile wide and an inch deep, as the saying goes. But as the public got access to more sources of news, the blush of coverage that most national organizations could provide wasn’t enough anymore.

So we’re starting to see organizations like Syria Deeply, that is cataloging the depth of a humongous story that could potentially affect us all. Utilizing content scraping and crowdsourcing, they’ve managed to bring a closer look from the international world onto the conflict in Syria. And the model seems replicable:

“We want to figure out how to make one topic in-depth financially viable,” Setrakian said. ” I’m not going to lean on ad revenue because I don’t want zit cream ads next to our refugee content I’m not going to lean on ad revenue because I don’t want zit cream ads next to our refugee content.”

Beyond working with enterprise clients, Syria Deeply receives support from The Asfari Foundation and the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Setrakian believes Syria Deeply has the opportunity to recreate the revenue model because it treats up-to-date information as insight, rather than just news. So far, she said, the cost of content has been pretty low, partly due to the high-volume of free content its been given from high quality news and information providers.

Traditional media, in case you haven’t heard, is scrambling to take adapt to the changing landscape. They get ridiculous computer screens and make hashtags and try to appear differently. The problem isn’t the veneer, though. It’s the change in the underlying contract between news consumer and news producer.

We no longer want to be subjected to what the news Producer (the job in the newsroom, not the general production machinery) thinks we’ll be interested in. We want our news, and we want it crammed into the real time constraints that we live with, not some half hour tripe full of teasers and commercials for programs later on that evening. Getting back to our free market example, once you stop producing a product that the public doesn’t have a need for, they stop buying it. Changing the packaging doesn’t change the fact that you’re no longer addressing a need.

Plain Language In Government

It’s a funny thing when government and politics get tangled up. Funny in an, “omigod, are these people adults or just seven-year-olds in suits,” kind of way. (Source: I live in the United States.)

Political leanings aside, these folks aren’t seven-year-olds. They are men and women who run the country. All of them have advanced degrees, extremely successful backgrounds, or the ability to successfully represent tens of thousands of their neighbors concerns and needs. They aren’t dumb people. So why is there such a disconnect on what should be a pretty basic point? The point I’m talking about is the debt ceiling. (Full disclosure: I am poor at maths, and poorer at financial maths.) This article from USA Today perfectly encapsulates the difference:

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., even argues that reaching the debt limit could help the economy, by showing the world the U.S. is serious about its debt problem. “I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets,” he told The Washington Post Monday.

Versus

Veronique de Rugy, an economist at the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said …”I do not believe that past Oct. 17 the country’s going to hell,” she said. “But I agree that failing to pay interest on our debt has very serious consequences.”

Is breaching the debt ceiling a good thing or a bad thing? This shouldn’t be this hard, but it is. And lest you think this is just a politician bashing post, it’s not just them, it’s us, too:

A new Pew Research Center poll shows a majority of Republicans and many independents are just fine with the idea of not raising the debt limit by the Treasury Department’s deadline of Oct. 17.

Slightly more than half of Americans — 51 percent — say it is essential to raise the debt ceiling to avoid an economic crisis. That’s slightly more than the 47 percent of Americans who said the same last week.

There is a huge partisan split on this questions, with 37 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats in the new poll believing there would be an economic crisis.

But it’s not just this topic. The difference between Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act should be, well, nothing, but thanks to Jimmy Kimmel, we see there is confusion even there:

I have a theory of why this is. Our politicians are getting very good at branding. And they brand everything: the PATRIOT Act, Obamacare, the Help America Vote Act. Each is named to conjure specific images, particular feelings that are fanned and encouraged by the particular cable news channel viewers they are intending to reach. They are intended to sow discord and side-taking. Which inevitably leads to confusion.

So what can we, as career government communicators, do about this state of affairs? Plain language. We might not be able to rename that thing in the news, but if people understood where we were coming from, and who we were and what our job was, think of the confusion we could avoid. Heading back to our original area of confusion, there are already calls for the Fed and the presumed new Chief to do a better job explaining what they do:

Since 2010, when Congress pivoted first to deficit reduction and then to gridlock, the only large, influential institution in Washington focusing on reducing unemployment and getting this tepid recovery up to speed has been the Federal Reserve. Yet the beneficiaries of those actions know very little about them. Outsiders like myself can help, but it will take a commitment by the Fed itself to really change that.

Do the people you work to help know what you do? Or are they swayed by political, divisive, rancorous names and cable news fights?