Navigating the Noise

Panel Focuses on Transparency in Government Communications

The Kent State School of Journalism and Mass Communication (JMC) hosted a panel discussion Feb. 23 2017, to discuss how professional communicators can best serve during divided and fractious times.

The JMC Conversation, “Navigating the Noise: How Communicators Serve in Fractious Times,” continued a conversation that began in January with “Journalism’s Way Forward”. Panelists included Susan Phalen, communications director for the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Assistant Professor Stephanie Smith, former senior intelligence service executive in the CIA.

The conversation began with a look at how communicators get their messages across today. Phalen made the point there is more "noise" today, because of how many different ways there are to communicate.

“It’s very easy, in all that extra chatter, to get distracted. That’s the hard part in maintaining your communications – to not be distracted, not be sidelined, not scoop yourself, not distract yourself and get off in tangents,” Phalen said.

The conversation took a closer look at the difference between "good noise" and "bad noise."

“Good noise, in my mind, a lot of it is the authentic and emerging story of American life that gets drowned out by other stories,” Smith said.

She described good noise as one you may not always hear about. For example, recently it was discovered a large percent of college debt is born of senior citizens.

“It’s a silent noise. When we talk about the mainstream story of college debt, we’re thinking of your age demographic,” Smith told the college-aged audience. “We’re not thinking of Grandma and Grandpa in their seventies who signed a loan for you or for a son or daughter and are now facing tremendous debt.”

Phalen and Smith agreed President Donald Trump tapped into good noise during the 2016 presidential election.

“He knew there was a segment of society that felt voiceless, unrecognized,” said Smith. “... He was able to discern that authentic piece of the American story in numbers large enough to sit where he sits now. He knew how to give it voice.”

The conversation ended with a look at trust and transparency in government. People tend to be immediately skeptical of anything that comes from the government, Phalen said.

“The only way to work through it is through complete transparency and complete honesty,” she said. “You end up getting caught if you’re not transparent. You end up getting caught if you tell an alternative fact. It’s not a way to build trust with the public, and it’s not a way to be a proper servant."

Communication professionals working in government wish to be transparent, but there is also some information that has to remain confidential.

“There are many things that we cannot say," Smith said. "We protect sources and methods. We have to protect lives. But because there are things we cannot be transparent about, part of our service must be to be totally transparent about the things we can be transparent about."

Watch the full conversation below:

JMC will partner with PRSSA-Kent to host another follow-up conversation on March 16, 2017, on the topic "How Diversity is Represented in the Media."

POSTED: Monday, February 27, 2017 - 4:50pm
UPDATED: Thursday, July 9, 2020 - 2:58pm
Keri Richmond, '17