Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Quotable: John Kirby on three new worlds

Tuesday, November 3rd 2015
Public affairs officers now live in a “post-interview world,” media users live in a “post-audience world,” and journalists live in a “post-messaging world.”  These were key insights communicated by State Department Spokesperson John Kirby when he spoke to students at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland.  On October 27, 2015, DINFOS posted a video of Kirby’s talk, “Communicating in a Post Message World.”  It should be of special interest to Embassy information officers and to public affairs advisors in the State Department’s bureaus – and their principals.  Some bullet quotes follow; the topical heads in bold are mine.  An unedited transcript is attached.

The post-interview world
  • Let's talk about your bosses. . . . Not all of them completely understand public affairs. Some of them do . . . most of them do, but not all. They're living in what I call a post interview world. Many of them have grown up to think that their interaction with the media or their interaction with the public is akin to being interviewed, right? Like a lecture, like this, you get up, you say your points, you say your piece, maybe take a couple of questions, and then you exit stage right and that's it, it's over, it's done.

  • It's not like that. It's not like a college lecture, it's like a college party. Right now everybody's in the room, everybody's talking, everybody wants to be heard. You got to be a part of that conversation and you got to help your boss understand that he or she needs to be a part of that conversation and in that room. Whether it's on Twitter or Facebook or ... involved in the community in ways maybe they're not comfortable being involved because that's their job now.

  • When you start putting stars on your collar or when . . . you're an SES or you're leading an organization you are -- particularly if you're a federal employee -- you are public property and they need to think of it that way. They belong to the people of the United States.

The post-audience world
  • I think the public lives in what I call a post audience world today. There's components to that. One is that I don't think you can parcel out the public anymore, the way we used to be able to do it when I started this in 1990 or so. We'd write these comm plans and you'd have here's your audiences -- Congress, the American people, sailors, families -- and for each one of those we'd have a different set of messages or how we were going to target them. You can't do that anymore . . . . 

  • You’ve got to understand that when you're speaking today, when you communicate, it's global in an instant, like that. Everybody, unintended audiences, are going to be able to, if they want to, to absorb and try to digest what you're saying.

  • That's this post audience world. The other aspect of it is that people don't want access to information anymore, they want access to conversation. They want to give it back to you. They're not comfortable being a passive audience, you guys know this.

  • That's the other thing that's happening in social media is this trend towards anonymity which I'm not sure I'm too comfortable with. It's this conversation, it's a post audience world, people don't just want to be messaged.

  • When your bosses or your ops guys tell you, "Well we need to message that." If they use the word message as a verb I hope you push right back on them. Don't let them do that, right? We don't message. We converse, we talk, we dialog, right? We're in the conversation space. Message is not a verb, it's not something that you can fire down range. It's who we are and it's how we talk to one another. That's that post audience world.

  • What they really want from us is context. If you don't remember any word I say here today, remember that one. Context, they want to understand. The most common question I still get asked, I used to say this when I was the Pentagon Press Secretary, now I've been doing it three months at the State Department. It's the same question, “why?” Why does John Kerry believe the Iran deal is good for America's interest? Why did the Secretary of Defense deploy an aircraft carrier to the coast of this country? Why do we think we're going to beat ISIL and why do we think it's going to take several years to do so? They want to understand because the people they work for, their bosses, and the people their bosses are trying to sell stories to want to know why. . . . Why, why, why, why, it matters. Context matters.

The post-message world
  • They're living in this post message world. . . . I'm not saying don't take the things you're learning here and use you have to. Understand that when you get out there, where the rubber meets the road, you've got to take it beyond the talking point level. Be able to explain to the people you're communicating with why we're doing what we're doing. That means, back to my point about attribution, being able and comfortable in talking to reporters and attribution that is not always on the record. There's a place and a time for being off the record. There's a place and a time for being on background and that time and space, if you use it wisely, will help you get them to understand that context.

Relationships with the media
  • This brings up another point about relationships. . . . . I can't overstress the importance of relationships. Building trust and credibility with members of the media that you're going to be dealing with everyday. Don't get too enamored of your ability to communicate directly. . . . Because of social media, and because of the internet, and we all have command websites, we can blog, we can send out press releases, we can go straight from the command to the American people and we should. I'm not saying we shouldn't use those tools.  But don't forget the power of an independent media, the power of the press. It matters and they're a good check on us and we should respect that.

  • That means you got to know them and understand them and how they do their jobs. They are just as passionate about what they're doing as we are about what we're doing. In fact, there's a lot of similarities between the media and the military. They're type A personalities just like us. They want to win. It's a competitive environment out there, very competitive. In fact more competitive now than it's ever been in the press. They understand the power of speed and accuracy. They want to get it right, they want to improve and they really believe, just like we do, that they are serving a greater good and they are.

  • . . . the worst time to have to deal on a difficult issue with a difficult reporter is doing it with a reporter you don't know. Somebody you don't trust or they don't trust you. It's like a piggy bank, you going to keep dropping little pennies in that bank of trust and then one day, believe it or not, you're going to have to make a withdrawal from that bank. An issue is going to be very sticky. The context is going to be very hard to understand and you're going to want to be able to sit down with a reporter from whatever it is and have them understand what you're trying to do and just as importantly what you can't do.

  • Often times when we can't answer a questions we don't bother to explain to the press why. If you have a good relationship with a reporter you can do that, you can take them off the record and explain to them here's why I can't go any further than I'm going right now. If you had that relationship, if you built that, it'll pay off.
EE-Q-KirbyUneditedTranscript.doc37 KB

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