Local government – and here I am thinking primarily of a small town’s local government – has three tiers of communication: saying nothing, saying something, saying the right thing. (In the third tier, right refers to a full and fair means of communication, and not right as merely agreeable and pleasing.)
Saying nothing. Common enough and easy enough to understand: nothing’s said, and especially nothing – however truthful and significant – that might reflect negatively on officeholders.
Saying something. This is the tier at which government officials are most frequently perched: they say something they believe to be positive, omitting other portions of a story no matter how relevant or material. The climb from nothing to something is the ascent from silence to sophistry. In every case at this tier, the goal is a particular presentation, with a particular goal.
Government may play this role on its own, or it may be luck enough to find a Babbitt to speak of local authorities the way a prophet would speak of God. There are always a few people like this, but it’s truly good fortune when someone will play this subservient political role with relish.
The key problem here is that to say something isn’t to say something sensible or well-considered. Indeed, at this tier, there are very few statements that are carefully vetted. There’s no tenth-man critique when one merely says something – there’s no effort to examine whether the statement might endure a sound critique: the self-serving statements in this tier are offered without foresight, almost cluelessly.
Three quick observations here:
(1) A collection of officials’ statements on significant issues would typically be a plaintiff’s counsel’s dream: a trove of revealing, somewhat clueless admissions of ignorance, bias, over-zealousness, etc. There’s either no one in these small communities who reviews statements before they’re published, reviews them with any competency, or whose review is adopted as policy even if it’s competent.
One can see this because so many statements are, in fact, a trove of revealing, somewhat clueless admissions of ignorance, bias, over-zealousness, etc….
Sometimes local officials will concede (if privately) that there are problems elsewhere in the government, but that they are the fault of another agency, leader, etc. Liability seldom works that way, at least as a claim: everyone in the chain, touching a matter at any level, usually finds himself or herself implicated. Litigation rarely begins narrowly – it mostly begins broadly.
(2) Public relations is more than a story in the paper – it’s a story that’s presented both persuasively to a target audience and safely against possible adverse claims. It’s been my pleasure to know one of the state’s leading public relations executives: her work isn’t merely about making people look good at the moment, but equally about keeping them from looking bad later on. She’s successful because she has a powerful, worthy foresight. (I’ve never seen her assess a situation without quickly considering, and measuring, the likelihood of adverse reactions, effectively ranking them in order of probability, and so focusing only on the remaining, meaningful ones, if any.)
(3) Here’s a simple technique that works on the untalented: Although anyone can sense danger when presented with a long and complicated question, the untalented will not sense the risk in a simple question. ON the contrary, they’ll likely think it’s a sign that the questioner is untalented, and so they’ll answer at length and without careful consideration, on, and on, and on.
It’s in that lengthy answer that they’ll reveal much, and leave myriad hostages to fortune.
Say the right thing. Here one says not merely what’s favorable, but what’s true, good or bad, favorable or unfavorable, confident in one’s ability to present and manage either.
It’s also the only tier in which one sits honorably.
Update: Sunday: Mentoring.