Public mistrust of government is unsettling the status quo. Fewer than two out of 10 Americans believe Washington is working on their behalf, polls show. Elected officials, meantime, are increasingly finding themselves in the cross-hairs, accused of all manner of misdeeds and broken promises. Chief among these complaints is lack of transparency. But there are steps that public sector leaders can take to close the gap between public expectations and political reality, says George C. Tagg, Jr., global lead of H+K’s Government and Public Sector Practice.

Danielle South, senior associate at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, recently sat down with George to explore this timely topic. Here’s what he had to say:

What are some of the biggest challenges facing public institutions today?

One of the biggest is lack of trust, which is near historic lows as it concerns institutions and their publics. At the same time, access to information is at an all-time high. This creates a danger zone, because a false story can spread instantly. As a result, institutions are increasingly assuming a firefighter’s mentality – they’re reacting in real time to misinformation.

Does this change how institutions need to communicate with the public?

Governments need to prepare for crises as the norm — otherwise you’re always going to be playing catch-up. I dealt with this first-hand while working at the Department of Defense and the State Department. Like many organizations, we often struggled to determine the best course for responding as we were juggling a live crisis. We can expect more crises to occur – that is a natural byproduct of the hyper-digital age we are living in – but if you have clear processes in place the difficult patches are a lot easier to manage. Also, advance preparation frees up time to deliver essential services.

Public views on government are always in flux. Why is it so important for governments to engage and take action now?

More than ever, the effects of misinformation and polarization are upsetting the highest levels of government; this also impacts alliances and leadership structures. To prevent that from happening, governments need to get out in front of stories before negative perceptions take root in the public mindset, not after.  This requires governments to pro-actively engage with the public. But you need an actual plan to do that well.

You are helping H+K Strategies expand its government and public-sector expertise worldwide. What is your vision for this new practice?

H+K’s new Government + Public Sector practice integrates our global reach and longstanding tradition of executive-level counsel with local knowledge, relationships and capabilities to help governments communicate more effectively with the public. Our goal, ultimately, is to deliver maximum impact and efficiency for our clients at the city, state and national levels.

How does H+K intersect with all of this?

We are well-schooled in the art, science and business of navigating the sometimes-tricky terrain of policy, politics and public sentiment. We turn strategy into action, and then enable our clients to execute on those multi-tiered plans in real time, worldwide.

What’s the single biggest takeaway here for readers of this interview?

Have a well-researched crisis plan in place. Because when an information mudslide hits, that truly is the difference between a good day – or a disastrous day – in the global news cycle.

George C. Tagg, Jr. is the global lead for Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Government + Public Sector practice. He has deep experience in political campaigns, the U.S. Congress, Department of State and Department of Defense. He is based in Austin, Texas. 

Danielle South is an Austin-based senior associate at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, specializing in media relations and corporate communications.