We the Partnership

Managing communications amid new leadership

By Nola Tolsma | March 4, 2021

The Partnership for Public Service hosted three virtual discussions on how federal communications teams can help agencies transition to new leadership. The event featured three panels: one on social media, one on website content and one on preparing incoming leaders.

Social media

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On Feb. 9, 2021, the Partnership for Public Service and the Federal Communicators Network hosted a panel discussion on how agencies can effectively and ethically manage their social media accounts during leadership transitions. The discussion focused on how communications teams help agencies minimize legal liability on social media, produce appropriate and relevant social media content, and communicate social media policy across the organization.

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist and a prominent supporter of several public service initiatives, gave an introductory address about how social media helps federal public affairs offices generate interest in their work and reach their core audiences.

The panelists made several recommendations for communications teams to help agencies transition to new political leadership. Gabrielle Perret, a senior media advisor for the General Services Administration, suggested that communications specialists look back at the accounts and archives from the previous administration, and forge relationships with the agency’s attorneys and records management officers in preparation for media legal questions.

Elizabeth Hochberg, assistant general counsel for the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, recommended that communications specialists collaborate with both legal and ethics counsels to avoid violating the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits civil servants from participating in partisan activity while working on the job or using federal resources.

Kristen Albrittain, an archives specialist for the National Archives and Records Administration, advised communications teams to exercise administrative oversight of agency spokespeople’s social media accounts. The panelists agreed that a clear review process is critical to protecting agency employees and contractors from any individual risk when posting on social media.

The panelists also talked about how to manage new political appointees’ social media accounts and train employees to produce appropriate content. Perret recommended agencies create an FAQ document and a video about Hatch Act violations, and a best practices resource to help new leaders and employees distinguish between personal and official accounts. She and Hochberg also emphasized the need to update employees across the agency—including interns—about new communications guidelines and policies. During the Q&A portion of the event, Perret and Hochberg stated that agencies should set up social media accounts for incoming political appointees as soon as possible, even before their official Senate confirmation.

“Managing Communications Amid New Leadership” featured three virtual discussions on how federal communications teams can help agencies transition to new leadership. The event featured two other panels: one on website content and another on preparing incoming leaders.


Website content

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On Feb. 11, the Partnership for Public Service and the Federal Communicators Network hosted a panel discussion on how agency communications teams can manage web content during leadership transitions. Topics included how web managers should archive and preserve old content, work with incoming political leaders to highlight their priorities and inform the public about the agency transition process.

The panelists advised communications teams to build strong relationships with incoming political appointees right away. Jeffrey Levy, global web director for the State Department, noted that appointees fresh off the campaign trail are often accustomed to devoting themselves to the needs of a single individual. He advised agency staff to offer education and training for these appointees to help them understand organizational processes and priorities.

The panel also discussed how to best manage web records such as dynamic homepages, interactive website content, and the written or electronic materials that document how and when websites are created and maintained. The panelists advised staff to connect with agency web-record officials who can provide guidance on the rules, laws and mechanics of managing web records.

In addition, the panelists noted that agencies have different rules governing the preservation of web content. The State Department, for example, purges state.gov at the end of an administration, but archives content from previous administrations for public access. Other agencies, like the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, archive content based on a preset period (e.g., 36 months). Levy recommended that staff set content retention plans based on specific agency needs, noting that it is important for agencies to maintain an official, publicly available archive of their web content.

The panelists also advised staff to post information on the web about incoming political appointees to shed light on the transition process and inspire public confidence in new leaders. Transitions can move quickly, so the panelists advised web managers to be transparent with their audiences and place banners or disclaimers on pages that are being updated.

Laura Larrimore, a senior design strategist at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, encouraged agencies to publish information about the new administration’s priorities early in the transition process and work with the incoming leader to specify where that information will reside on the web. To facilitate this process, Larrimore suggested that web content managers modify information written by previous political leaders to be more evergreen before agency transitions occur. ShaMyra Sylvester, a technical writer and editor for the Department of Energy, encouraged web managers to include their users as part of this process.

To support the incoming administration early in the transition, the panel also suggested communications teams offer a social media briefing with limited metrics to provide an overview of the agency’s public presence.

“Managing Communications Amid New Leadership” featured three virtual discussions on how federal communications teams can help agencies transition to new leadership. The event featured two other panels: one on social media and another on preparing incoming leaders.


Preparing incoming leaders

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As the Biden administration settles into its first term, agencies across the federal government are preparing their teams to welcome new political leadership. On Feb. 10, the Partnership for Public Service and the Federal Communicators Network organized a panel discussion on how communications teams can prepare incoming leaders to hit the ground running in their new roles.

Much of the discussion focused on fostering good relationships with new agency leaders. Ron Haskell, the director of communication at the Office of Patient Care Services, suggested that communications teams should anticipate leaders’ needs during a transition. “You have the opportunity to generate big ideas by anticipating needs and tying them to the initiatives they’re looking to do,” he said.

Haskell added that monitoring confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill can help communications teams learn about incoming political leaders. “This helps for early successes and wins, while also allowing the team to get a sense of who they’re going to be working with and what direction they might go in,” he said.

Hortense Blackwell Diggs, director of the Office of Communication and Public Engagement at the Kennedy Space Center, reiterated this point, recommending that teams make it a priority to facilitate the new ideas these leaders bring to the table. “You don’t want to make it seem like you’re not willing to change and move in the direction they’re planning to go,” she said.

Diggs added that communications specialists should make it easy for new political leaders to access critical information. “We have an information packet we give to our new leaders as part of onboarding,” she said. “That way they have all of their information in one place, and they can come ask us questions about any part of it.”

Laura McGinnis, a digital media specialist at the Department of Labor, added that communications teams should “anticipate the needs of political leaders, get together as a group, and find out what they want to know and what they need to know. Then base your plan around that.”

McGinnis also advised teams to use evergreen text in their communications materials—but not too much. “Don’t start making assumptions,” she said. “Make your best educated guess in areas where you can make reasonable assumptions and then delay until leadership is sworn in and you know what they want to do.”

The panelists also discussed how to provide new political leaders with just the right amount of information to help them adapt to their new roles quickly. McGinnis recommended using plain language and breaking up information in presentations to make everything more digestible, while Diggs suggested that teams should inform leaders about their agencies’ core audiences. “You want to make it clear that leaders shouldn’t turn off audiences that don’t understand the language being used,” she said.

The panel concluded with a reminder that preparing for a transition early, and making full use of a team’s experience and skill set will enable communications specialists to work effectively with new political leaders.

“Managing Communications Amid New Leadership” featured three virtual discussions on how federal communications teams can help agencies transition to new leadership. The event featured two other panels: one on social media and another on website content.

Follow the Federal Communicators Network on Twitter @FedCommNetwork.


Nola Tolsma