Some Last-Minute Tone for You Subjects Stakeholders

Matt Sheaff is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Outreach for the Commerce Corporation, which is a “quasi-public” agency whose director of communications and stakeholder outreach somehow also handles strategy for several full, honest-to-goodness state agencies. (It seems odd that a quasi-public agency apparently has authority over regular agencies, but nobody’s ever asked the governor why she sets things up that way.)

Since his role is communications, and he’s supposed to connect government agencies with stakeholders, something Sheaff tweeted last night deserves a close look:

If you’re a RI noncritical retail business planning on opening tomorrow – here’s a reminder of the steps you must take before reopening (including hanging the poster that’s included at the link in a place visible for your employees & customers)

Sheaff links to a flier for all those “noncritical retailers” to sign and post.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

To start, imagine yourself as one of the people Sheaff is ostensibly targeting with his tweet.  You’ve been closed down for weeks, losing money and scrambling to keep your business viable.  More recently, you’ve been doing your best to plan for reopening as the person who shut your business down — the governor of the State of Rhode Island — has played a game of “maybe I will, maybe I won’t” and delayed key details until the last minute.

Still, you need to be open as soon as possible, so you’ve done what you can to prepare, and here you are on the eve of reopening, with your entire staff probably feeling some anxiety about getting back to it.  In fact, you’re may also be dealing with employees who responded to your latest text message by asking if it’d be okay for them to stay unemployed for a while, because the government that shut you down is giving them better pay for not working.

You have no idea what to expect, tomorrow, and you’re doing everything you can to make your establishment look comfortable and safe.  You’re spending every waking hour (if not devoted to filling out loan forms and trying to schedule bill payments just right) thinking about your customers and what might get them to return to your store.

And here comes this guy, whose well-paying government job was probably never endangered, making sure that you know there are some more bureaucratic “steps” that you “must take before reopening.”  Just to ensure you don’t miss the message, he emphasizes that you are a “noncritical retail business.”  The world could live without you.

A communications professional tasked specifically with thinking about “stakeholders” might have come up with a better way of phrasing that.  He might have said, “If you’re one of RI’s cherished business owners reopening tomorrow, we are with you every step of the way! Don’t forget to display this poster that we developed to help your employees and customers feel more comfortable getting back to business.”  (Yes, that even fits on Twitter.)

In fairness to Sheaff, that isn’t the tone that his boss is promoting, and it isn’t how she thinks of business owners.  This pandemic is really about how well she’s running everything for us, so if you want to get back to your business and to your life, you’d better listen up and “knock it off.”  Raimondo’s going to tell you how to do it.

One suspects the poster isn’t intended as a tool to increase comfort and pass along information.  It’s a tool of subordination.  It isn’t at all clear that the governor has the legal authority to create these extensive, business-by-business, regulations as a condition of your economic activity.  Therefore, she and her employees (whose criticality is never questioned) have to establish the belief that you have to follow her rules.  If you sign a document and post it for all to see, your bound to the rules by honor, whether or not the rules are legally binding.

If her communications directors (yes, plural) started giving you the impression that we’re involved in a cooperative endeavor in a “government by the people,” you might at some point question whether you have to jump through every hoop dangling before you, and that would be unacceptable.

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