Government Communication and Public Affairs Through the Eyes of John Verrico
1. What goals do you hope to accomplish in your two-year term as the National Association of Government Communicators’ (NAGC) president?
The principal benefits of the National Association of Government Communicators are the professional development and networking opportunities it provides to communication professionals in all levels of government – local, county, state, tribal, and federal. Working with NAGC’s amazingly dedicated Board of Directors who volunteer their time for these efforts, I am working to increase those opportunities, especially to the local, county, state and tribal folks. I served for 10 years in state government before becoming a fed, and it was there that I most felt the need to connect with other professionals in my career field. Many agencies have small staffs, few people to turn to for advice or help. I was always hungry to learn how someone else in another agency in my state, or a similar agency in another state, handled certain situations or challenges. I want NAGC to be that go-to organization that makes those connections happen. To do this, we need to grow our membership in these sectors by proving the value of membership.
One way of ensuring value is to offer superior educational and professional development opportunities. I want to see us get these accredited so they count as continuing education and lead to a potential certification as a government communication professional.
We’re also preparing to revamp the Association’s website to make it much more exciting and useful for our members. We’re going to be beefing up the content in the Members Only section, adding more training resources, showcasing best practices, and sharing award-winning examples. We have already begun posting related professional articles and newsletters from around the world, starting with the Convergences newsletter from our counterparts in the European Union.
NAGC has become an internationally recognized professional resource. Our international counterparts have reached out to us again and again for information and advice. Over the past several years, NAGC board members have met with representatives from government communications staffs from the Ukraine, South Eastern Europe, China, Japan, Korea, Azerbaijan, the West Bank, and others. We have gained members from Canada, Montenegro, Belgium and Cypress, and have developed an information-sharing partnership with the esteemed Club of Venice—a consortium of the top public affairs officials in the European Union. I am preparing to deliver a presentation via Skype to a communications conference in South Africa in a couple of weeks. One thing I have learned in all of these interactions is that our international counterparts are facing many of the same challenges we do here in the United States, and they operate more similarly to agencies at our state and local levels than they do with federal agencies. There is a great deal to learn from each other and I’d like to grow NAGC in that direction as well—enabling more interaction and exchange between U.S. and foreign government communicators. Who knows, if our members want to go in that direction, NAGC may become the International Association of Government Communicators someday.
On the homefront, I am working to increase advocacy for our profession and improve the reputation of government communicators. Surveys in recent years have identified a rift between reporters and federal public affairs specialists. Some of this is due to the practices of politically motivated communications, some due to biased reporting, and most due to a lack of trust between the entities. I want to mend those bridges.
I have spoken to several media groups and journalism college students, and also have been interviewed by several media outlets about the role of the PAO. Keep your eyes open for an op-ed in the near future.
2. What are the most critical issues facing government communicators today?
The most critical issue for government communicators has always been trust. Trust between spokespersons and media, trust between the leadership suite and the communications office, trust between the government and the public it serves, and trust amongst our own selves. Today, more than ever, trust has become a rare commodity. With every new incident, every mistake, every cover up, trust disintegrates. When someone has been burned by an unscrupulous reporter, it makes them less willing to give another interview and less willing to trust the advice of their PAO telling them to do so. When people get sick after a government agency says that something is safe, trust is lost. When a government official refuses to be transparent, tries to hide information that makes them look bad, or gets caught misrepresenting the facts, it becomes harder to sell anything that comes out of their mouths in the future. When citizens don’t trust that the police are doing the right things in their communities or believe there are biases; well, we’ve seen the result of that in the unrest in Ferguson, and Baltimore, as well as in New York and other cities around the country where police officers are being ambushed or shot. When long-time trusted journalists fail to check facts before creating a national story, the credibility of the entire news industry is called into question.
When I started in this business three decades ago, the news industry was different. There were dedicated beat reporters that an agency’s communicators could build long-term trusted relationships with. Those reporters understood the issues, knew the history and could be trusted to know what was truly newsworthy and what was not. A government communicator could trust that information they provided would be used correctly and in context, and the reporter could trust that they were being provided complete and accurate information, or understand why some information could not be released at that time.
In today’s changing media landscape, most media outlets do not have the luxury of having dedicated beat reporters. Many journalists are general assignment and have to knock out several stories in a single day, none related to one another, and they have to be written or produced in several different formats for a variety of platforms. There is no time to learn about the fine details of the story, nor deeply research the history of an issue. Plus there are hundreds of sources for “facts” out there on the internet. Having the trusted relationships that are so critical to both reporters and communicators is a rare thing nowadays.
3. How important is strategic planning for government agencies?
Strategic planning is critical in pretty much every communication activity. Government agencies are under scrutiny by other entities, the media, the public and government oversight (Congressional committees, legislative bodies, accounting offices, etc.) Too often, I have seen communication efforts miss the mark because there was no real strategy. We put out newsletters and press releases because we want to hear ourselves crow, but do not take into account whether or not someone wants or needs the information. We use social media because someone said we should be on the newest platforms, but not because our key stakeholder audiences will look for us there. We are good with the who, what, when and where, and sometimes even the how, but we frequently overlook the why.
A good communication strategy will include understanding exactly who your audience is, what they want or need to know, when they need to know it, where and how to reach them, and why they should want or need or even care about the information. This is especially critical when trying to incite a group to action. Why should they want to take that action? What will they get out of it? If you cannot say why you are doing something and why they should care, you are not going to be successful.
Every group and individual will have different motivations as to what they want and need from the government agency, and for whether or not they will take the desired action. Strategic planning helps us to understand and target those motivational factors, helps our messages resonate with our constituents, and ensures the economical allocation of our own resources.
4. NAGC holds an annual communications school. What's on the agenda for this year?
NAGC’s annual communications school offers an unparalleled opportunity for government communicators to come together, to share each other’s stories, experiences, best practices, and worst nightmares. Incidents this year have challenged the skills of even the most experienced communication professionals around the world – outbreaks of deadly diseases, passenger planes disappearing or crashing, devastating earthquakes, the recent train derailment near Philadelphia, and civil unrest the likes of which have not been seen in the United States since the 1960s. The agenda for NAGC’s Communications School seeks to help government communicators learn from experts and peers to better cope with situations like these, as well as to improve skills or learn new ones across all of the communication disciplines. We have in-depth workshops on strategic communications, graphic art, and writing for multiple platforms. There are spellbinding, edge-of-your-seat, first-person accounts of dealing with ebola, the Enron crisis, and the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. We’ll take a riotously funny look at creativity in government; learn about how to best use Facebook directly from Facebook; and get a European perspective on ethics in government communications from the prestigious Club of Venice. And then there are 18 different break-out sessions, panels, case studies and more!
My favorite highlight of our annual gathering is the opportunity to recognize and honor superior efforts in telling the government’s stories across all levels of government at the NAGC Blue Pencil and Gold Screen Awards ceremony, which includes the Government Communicator of the Year.
This year, the School will be held in Memphis, a place that epitomizes American storytelling. Memphis is the home of the Blues – music that tells the story of life, love, culture, and society, with the underlying message that we are all in this together. Memphis is also the home of Bar-B-Q – food with a storied history so rich that every culture in the world has adopted some version of it. And Memphis is also the home of Elvis Presley—the story of Elvis is the story of the American dream.
Its coming up fast – June 2-4. So put on your Blue Suede Shoes, and join us in Memphis for Blues, BBQs and Government News. You can register at www.nagconline.org.
5. What has been your defining moment as a government communicator -- an experience that made you proud to be in this field?
While there have been many successes over the years, many great stories, many cool projects, many special moments, but there was a time in the early part of my civilian career that was my moment of illumination on the power of good media relations. At the time I was a media spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, responsible for the five southern counties of the state. I made it a priority to get to know the local media in those areas. There is something special about the relationship between community news outlets and the government agencies that serve those communities. With no particular story to pitch nor query to respond to, I met often with local reporters and editors – usually over lunch, a donut, or a cup of coffee. These relationships led to amazing opportunities, including such perks as a syndicated column, free cable TV spots, and even a weekly radio show. Several incidents took place during this period that helped define what good relationships are all about, but one particular event truly stands out.
Due to budget shortfalls in the early 1990s, the Department had to cut back on staff and services in some of the state parks, and even shut down some parks. One afternoon, I was commiserating over coffee with the editorial staff of the local newspaper about this situation when the newspaper’s owner suggested getting his folks involved. He inspired his entire workforce to take a day out of the office, and spend it working in the park. Reporters, photographers, editors and office admin staff all worked for many hours trimming branches, digging out weeds, cutting back overgrowth, bagging up trash and debris, filling holes, getting filthy – with me right alongside – and cleared nearly a half-mile of trails in the park. It was a great day! Of course, they took pictures of the whole thing and ran a multi-page photo spread that issued a challenge to other businesses, school groups, families and individuals to match their efforts and get involved in the local park.
The result was staggering! Dozens of volunteers signed up in just a matter of days to work on other projects in the park, build playgrounds, perform daily maintenance, and serve as interpreters for park visitors. For many years afterward, the Friends of Calvert Cliffs State Park group literally ran all aspects of the park, allowing the government agency to keep the park open to the public.
To me, this episode is the epitome of government and community coming together, driving home the power of media and of establishing good relationships. I have never been happier or more proud to be a government communicator.