Government Goes to Market: Why Public Relations isn’t Enough


Be honest: as a government communicator, if someone shadowed you at work for a day, they would gather that most of your time is spent playing defense.

We gather data, condense it, translate it into a middle school reading level, and then disseminate. All the ribbon cuttings, grant announcements and success stories don’t deter the media from more sensational issues, like lead in drinking water, the realities of public school systems, or pot holes in our roads. This work is time consuming and consistent, and also immensely important to the transparent flow of vital information to the public.

But are we doing enough? Or maybe the better question is, are we doing enough of certain things? In regards to brand management and stakeholder trust – some of the things required in a comprehensive communications plan – public relations is simply not enough. We fall short of true mission fulfillment when we neglect to expend adequate resources on major communications pillars, namely marketing.

That dirty ‘M’ word is typically relegated to corporate entities focused on sales and profits, or charitable organizations working doggedly to separate themselves from the pack, but marketing has a place in government communications. Depending on department type and scope, the public audience of a government agency can range from captive to captivated. Many people interact with government services without much engagement. When the public needs something – like a driver’s license – that only the state can offer, we accept the relationship for what it is and move on.

Some agencies have created unique opportunities for rich engagement with their audience and they’ve reaped the rewards. Can you recall the last YouTube video you saw of a police officer deescalating a situation through a dance-off or making a donation to an unsuspecting family? I bet you can think of several. What about tourism campaigns? Consider the 2014 ‘Made in Tennessee’ campaign that was recently touted for raking in $18 for the state for every $1 spent. Those wins were achieved through traditional marketing techniques that are applicable to any type of organization.

With limited staffing and resources, it can be daunting to rate your communications efforts against corporate or non-profit giants that live-and-die based on revenues. While we don’t exist on the same playing field as corporate or non-profit giants, we can benefit from learning about their marketing strategies, including these few:

  • Calls to action – with every piece of public communication you share – including press releases, webpages, social media posts, etc. – ask yourself: What am I asking people to do? If you want them to enroll in a program, visit a state park, or pay their taxes, say it explicitly.
  • Publication mirroring – hone in on your agency’s brand and then spread it out to everything you touch. Be consistent, from your website to brochures to reports. If your department has a lot of printed materials, assimilate them so eventually viewers will know a publication is yours before they’ve even read it. This speaks to your agency’s mission too; strive for every publication to tie back into your root cause. Does the core of your agency exist to protect and preserve the state’s land, water and air? Then your homepage better include those references.
  • Message maps – triangles, flowcharts, bubbles… If there’s a shape, someone’s made it into a communications tool before. The basic premise of any message map is to have simple, concise messaging at your fingertips. Many crisis communicators use this tool to handle pointed questions from the media, but savvy communicators have found it useful in any conversation about your work. Consider this the speech for your 30 second pitch about what your agency does and why others should care. Reference this when dealing with your various publics – legislators, constituents, counterparts at other agencies, peers at a networking event, etc.

By taking traditional marketing concepts into account – like R.O.I. and advertising – government agencies and the communities they serve can benefit from real investment in dollars and attention.

Kim Schoetzow is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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