When the National Security Agency — yes, the NSA — posted an opening last month for a Director, Strategic Communications, much of the reaction was skeptical and, in a word, snide.
Certainly to be expected in light of the persistent drip of documents from Edward Snowden and the agency reaction. The revelations were not what we expected from the agency. They caught us by surprise and have led to calls for reform and more. As for the reaction, it has been unpersuasive.
If this new position is filled, it will require that the person selected be able to do two things that will signal success. First, to partner with the agency’s leadership to strengthen the ethical practices deployed in pursuit of the NSA’s mission: “Global Cryptologic Dominance…in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.” Second, to build and lead a team that understands and can help the agency meet public expectations. Success will be defined not as stopping the scrutiny — that could only happen over time and based on performance and likely not at all — but as beginning to bring some balance back to the story.
This is the essence of good public relations. It works to create context that makes the actions of companies, institutions and individuals less likely to be misunderstood. Criticism ought to be for good reason. Credit ought to come without fear that it might be a trick. While a single detail can be portrayed ominously, by pulling back the lens and creating context, it may be seen as part of a more understandable whole. This is easier said than done in general. For the NSA it will be, well, pick your metaphor, like changing a car tire as it speeds down the Interstate.
The NSA ought to get credit for applying resources to ensure the best practices. Compliance oversight is very much a public asset at the agency and the recent addition of a Chief Privacy Officer, based on her track record, is more than optics. The Director, Strategic Communication will need to be their partner in promoting those best practices and a guide to the agency overall in understanding not just the public’s expectations, but the implications — good and ill — for any action considered or undertaken.
This internal alignment or agreement is an essential element of any successful public relations program. It makes engagement more meaningful, too. Right now, the NSA is spending a lot of time fielding questions it can’t answer. The task is to break out of that pattern to one where, even if there are no good answers, it is better understood why. To a degree, the reputation of the new communications lead may create some breathing room, but ultimately it will be what is done not what is said that will carry the program. Right now, what already has been done is an under told story.
By getting internal agreement and taking advantage to increase public engagement, there is a chance to elevate the story. The one thing that most people can agree on is the need the NSA seeks to address. It is a dangerous world and we ought to know more about it. Right now, though, the story is more of the horse race than the condition of the track.
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John Berard, a veteran of Hill & Knowlton and Zeno, runs Oregon-based credible context (http://www.crediblecontext.com), where this commentary first appeared.