Tales From The Secretary of State Branch: A License To Communicate Differently

IMG_2883Every eight years, drivers in Michigan get a “birthday card” from the Secretary of State’s office. While that name conjures thoughts of international diplomacy, it’s essentially our “DMV.” The chore of having to go into a government office, taking a number and sitting in a tiny folding chair until being called to have your picture taken and take an eye test is hardly a favorite to-do list item.

But yesterday, I planned ahead and arrived 45 minutes early to secure a spot as second in line. I figured with the office closest to home opening at 9, I’d be out the door and on the way to the office by 9:15. It didn’t work out that way.

When the line of 25 was brought into the office, we were told by a manager that the statewide computer system was “down” and it was a “major” outage. We could wait or leave. I decided to wait. Sitting there for 90 minutes, I watched employees try in vain to get information and restart their system. I heard angry citizens curse the situation as they stormed out in frustration. I also live tweeted the situation after noticing that the Secretary of State’s office was doing nothing to proactively communicate to citizens via its website, social media platforms or traditional media. I noticed others, around the state, were doing the same.

After running out of time, and not accomplishing what I had set to accomplish more than two hours earlier, I had to scramble get to my office and then to a lunch meeting. As coincidence would have it, that meeting included Michigan’s Secretary of State, Ruth Johnson.

“We saw your tweets” was my greeting upon meeting the Secretary and seeing her two communications staff members. Exceptionally professional and apologetic, they explained what happened. It seems there was a problem with a server controlled by a different State department that affected everything they typically do in their 170 offices. It was out of their hands and was such a big problem that even the Governor was made aware. I sympathize but also offered some advice, as we have on this blog over the years, as recently as this post in 2012.

Things like this happen. All of us who use technology (in other words, all of us) understand. So be proactive. Someone knew early in the morning this server issue was going on. If I had heard about the issue on WWJ or WJR radio on the way, or seen it on social media while in line, I would have had the early option to not waste time and come back another day. It could have prevented the surprise that led to the cursing and visible disdain.

Instead, they followed the traditional edict “Don’t communicate bad news.” That’s not necessarily in the best interest of the people they are charged to serve and not necessarily in this age of communication. Tell your audiences what’s going on, clearly, instead of leaving it to employees on site who were hung out to dry. Manage expectations and empower your audiences to decide how to handle it in their own ways. The worst thing you can do in this situation is nothing. Then customers control the narrative and it’s always tinged with frustration.

To her credit, Secretary Johnson was open to this conversation.She also let me know I should have been given a pass, on the spot, to get me to the front of the line whenever I chose to return. That would have made a big difference but it didn’t happen.

Late in the day, I visited a second Secretary of State office, close to an afternoon meeting, and was in and out in 12 minutes. Today, I think differently about that State department. Maybe this will lead others to think differently about communications?