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Speaking to government personnel who don’t have time to listen

Speaking to government personnel who don’t have time to listen

By Joshua DeLung

“We just don’t have time.”

That’s what my colleague and I recently heard over and over again during a recent series of focus groups and interviews with acquisition workforce professionals at one of our government agency clients.

The issue: Our client needed to get buy-in for an acquisition workforce online career planner, but it just wasn’t happening.

The solution: We decided to gather research from the target audience to determine what’s really important to those potential users in order to inform our strategic messaging, branding and communication tactics.

At the end of the month-long research project, we had a ton of qualitative data that we sorted through to identify some key problems we needed to address through both program implementation and marketing. Number one on that list was that acquisition workforce professionals are overloaded with work. The perception was that carving out time for a three-hour program during a normal workday is just absolutely impossible. (In fact, the planner can be completed in fewer than 10 minutes a day during the course of a month, but it had never been framed that way to potential users before.)

What we really needed to communicate is that the planner actually saves time for users by helping them create their individual development plans (something they have to do each year anyway) and also by laying out the specific training courses an individual needs to earn his or her continuous learning points, a mandatory requirement for maintaining a Federal Acquisition Certification. The idea was to take the time-commitment excuse and flip it on its head, as well as to brand the program as a career planner, not as some sort of assessment.

Other key communication approaches we learned might help overcome barriers to communicating about the planner were:

  •  Even though acquisition professionals are bombarded with emails, it’s still their primary means of communication — but the emails need to come from recognized managers or mailing lists and contain eye-catching subject lines, or they’ll just get deleted
  • Communicate via established, regularly used channels such as regional or organizational conference calls and meetings
  • Establish a presence at the large events almost everyone in the workforce attends — it’s not enough to just show up with a table; you need a communication plan that enables you to actively engage with the target audience and deliver a call to action
  • Use plain language, and give the planner a name that doesn’t cause brand confusion with other internal or third-party programs and tools
  • Create a more robust public Web presence that’s easily searchable and navigable — everyone avoids the intranet

Many of these points aren’t necessarily limited to the acquisition workforce or government workers in general. But hearing the sentiments of a target audience first-hand allows communicators to develop poignant, hard-hitting messaging — and that’s the most important place to start. Such research also validates tactical decisions because we then hear directly from the target audience about where users go for information, which saves the government from using resources on tactics that aren’t likely to work (for example, research participants all told us they don’t use much social media to get acquisition career-related information, opting instead for trade publications put out by ASI or NCMA).

Sometimes clients don’t want to wait for, or spend resources on, research. But we sure hate starting a project any other way. Ignoring the research step sets both client and contractor up for failure.

Image courtesy Flickr user Alan Cleaver.

About Joshua DeLung

Senior Director of Communication Services, specializes in strategy, public relations, writing/editing and social media.

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