How To Rebrand The Federal Workforce

Photo by Cayusa via Flickr

In January GovExec ran “Restoring The Brand,” a feature story describing efforts by pro-government employee groups to show how important we are to the American people. To scare them into supporting us by imagining what would happen if we weren’t around.

For example, the article cites this public service announcement sponsored by the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU):

“Before you drink your next glass of water, eat your next meal, visit the doctor’s office, board a flight, deposit a paycheck, before you take your next breath . . . Consider who’s working day and night so that you can do all this safely. Federal employees, that’s who.”

I am a federal employee so I have every interest in the world in restoring, polishing, maintaining and improving my (our) brand. But negative messages like this are the wrong approach. Because they only add fuel to the flaming debate about whether federal workers are over- or under-paid compared with the private sector.

Very simply, if the only reason to support federal employees is what could happen without us, then all you have to do is replace us with private sector contractors and see if the trains can still run on time.

Instead, the branding message for federal employees should focus on what makes us unique and irreplaceable. We have an amazing story to tell – why haven’t we gone there yet? Why has nobody taken a positive approach?

If I could rebrand the federal workforce, I would take a three-pronged approach as follows:

  1. Address the negative stereotypes. They say we are lazy fat cats who live off the taxpayer’s dime. We have to deal with that. (Renowned political strategist Dick Morris, who served as campaign manager and political adviser for former President Clinton, said recently on FOX News that Clinton told him, “Never let an attack go unanswered.”) Responding means being accountable, because guess what? Sometimes “they” are right!
  2. Use “positioning” to show our unique value. “Positioning” is a marketing tactic wherein you situate yourself as offering something that nobody else can. If you look at the characteristics of the very best federal employees – caring, versatile, resourceful, dedicated, generous, tough, educated, experienced, funny, diverse and gracious – I think we are doing ourselves tremendous harm by failing to tell our positive story. We do not need to subtly threaten the American public into taking care of us. We need only show concretely what we do, and how we contribute, the vast majority with good intentions.
  3. Portray a vision for the federal workforce that takes us one, five, ten years into the future. In my view the primary problem federal workers face right now is the fragmentation between agencies. What we don’t seem to understand is that to the American public, we are ONE entity. In fact I would argue that they don’t even see much difference between political employees and those in the civil service. We are all, together, “Washington.” And we need to respond as one face with one voice.

Which brings me to the primary point of this post. In my view the single most powerful thing federal employees can do to rebrand ourselves – because it is us, it is our brand, and we are responsible for it – is to show how we absolutely kick ass as versus the private sector.

That’s right. You heard me. The idea that we are a bunch of unemployable misfits needs to be gone, now. The federal employee must be seen as the very best that America has to offer.

We cannot brand our country with logos and labels and taglines and campaigns.

We can only brand our country through the faces and voices of the people who work for it. The people with whom the public interacts.

The asteroid that we Federal employees feared so much has landed: People are questioning our worth.

In response we have to get up and fight. Yes, it is time to compete for our own jobs.

Where we fall short we have to admit it – where we are doing well we cannot shy away from telling our own story.

There is no need to wait for some organization to do it for us. This is something that we can do for ourselves.

And because the American public really does count on us 24/7, recasting our identity collectively will be of great benefit to them, and to the stability of our country, as well.

Good luck!

*Note: As always, all opinions are my own.

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Profile Photo Scott Kearby

I am reminded of the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

Maybe we can deliver extra-ordinary service & let our actions do the talking … its the little things that make the difference & 1 bad experience can have a lasting negative impact.

David B. Grinberg

Your post makes good points, Dannielle. But let’s consider Government good intentions and expectations versus media reality and ratings. First, as Scott points out: actions speak louder than words. Second, I agree with you, Dannielle, that launching a negative PR campaign and the use of scare tactics is a terrible idea. If a PR campaign is to launched, how about one featuring the SAMMIE winners, as well as historic Government accomplishments? Third and foremost, however, despite all the good Government there is out there — and regardless of how well that’s communicated — the age-old credo of journalism that “sensationalism sells” and “if it bleeds, it leads” (so to speak) will always trump the positive news. Remember, the so-called Fourth Estate considers being a Government watchdog to be one of its foremost — if not the most — responsibilities and reasons for existence. Thus, sadly, it only takes one good scandal (GSA, TSA, Secret Service, take your pick) to easily overshadow all the good done by Government everyday that goes unreported (even with good PR). Teddy Roosevelt didn’t refer to journalists as “muckrakers” for nothing — and that’s long before the proliferation of 24/7 news, the Internet, etc.

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

Normally it’s true that actions speak louder than words. But unfortunately we government employees are up against a negative perception that has turned into a stereotype that has turned into a crisis. So we can’t just “do a good job and they will believe we’re worthwhile.”

Playing defense means you lose. Pretending there’s no conflict means you lose.

What works is facing the scrutiny we’re under and responding with a rebrand – just like every company does when it’s suffered an image crisis.

Conceptually I don’t think this is a difficult thing to grasp. But practically I can see that it would be difficult to shake people out of their stupor.

Profile Photo Todd Solomon

It’s too bad that Emerson was speaking only for himself. And even worse that the situation hasn’t improved in a century and a half. We wish we lived in a world where actions speak louder than words. Maybe at one time we did–I wouldn’t pretend to know–but we don’t now. Reality is a matter of consensus, and the consensus about feds is both negative and completely disconnected from the good work most of us do.

There’s no question that performance is absolutely critical, but if no one is communicating that kick-ass performance to folks outside the Beltway, then it’s just another tree falling silently in an empty forest.

So, what next, Danielle? What are the action steps in the new fed’s offense?

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

Here are 5 suggestions -

1. Start with yourself, the only person you control. Don’t fall in with naysayers, excuse-makers, deniers, apologists for the status quo. Don’t wait for someone to magically tell you what to do. Take charge and only focus on you.

2. Fully engage your mind in being successful at work. I recently read that 55% of employees alternately “check in and check out.” Check in.

3. Dress corporate. You are being judged in private sector terms no matter what you think. Be clean, neat, professional, and stylish. Don’t use weight, age, money, etc. as an excuse. Make the commitment to step it up.

4. Document your work to your superiors. This is a balancing act. If you’re documenting all the time you’re not working. If you’re working very fast and don’t document, it looks like you didn’t do anything. Shoot for a weekly status report.

5. Build a professional network. Madeline Albright recently said something like, “Women make friends and men network.” Women earn 77% of what men do, so I would listen to Albright. Inside, outside, public sector, private sector. Hang out with people who can help you succeed. Online is fine. Volunteering your professional skills is a good way to give back and build a reputation. If you can’t find a good organization, start one. It is important for the world to see that government employees can hold their own in any professional forum.

6. Show your value. Don’t be falsely modest. Can you code? Code. Can you manage a project? Manage it. Can you write? Write something. Move forward aggressively. Remember what you learned and then share best practice with the world, being careful to respect boundaries and confidentiality, etc.

7. Be a team player. It’s a small world and Washington is a small town. Don’t be a backstabber or an information-hoarder. Share information as much as you can with your team, with your agency, with your professional network, etc. Team players are valuable and have an excellent reputation that precedes them.

8. Improve your agency through a dedicated network of passionate believers. There are some agencies that have outstanding brand value. All you have to do is say their name and you’re “in.” Others get less credit but do equally amazing work. Be a change agent on the inside by partnering with others who “get it.” A rising tide lifts all ships.

9. Get engaged with the actual work your agency does and be passionate about it. You don’t have the luxury of saying that you’re a back-office support specialist. Read the darn newspaper. You must know at least three things about your agency that you can share.

10. Stand up for integrity and good government. No place is perfect but you don’t have to accept the status quo as inevitable. If you see something say something (thanks DHS!) Very seriously, change begins only with the person. I find that GovLoop in particular is a great place to share one’s thoughts, be challenged, and build consensus about the way forward, because we all do share a commitment to good government and moving forward to the future.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, just some quick thoughts. Hope it’s helpful.

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

A couple of other quick adds:

1 – These suggestions don’t cost any money – to David Grinberg’s point that’s a luxury we don’t have and don’t need.

2 – Top 5 comments I have received regarding working for government:

* “You really DO work hard over there in DC” or * “You don’t work too hard over there in DC, do you?”

* “You work for TSA, right?” (insert TSA joke/complaint) or * “You work for (defunct agency), right?”

* “You work for that agency that gives all the money away, right?” (humanitarian assistance)

* “I’ve been watching (—–) (senior executive) on TV” (and then their being grilled on the Hill is somehow related to my life)

* “How do I get myself one of them cushy jobs?”

Profile Photo Peter Sperry

I tend to think we will accomplish more by focusing on the brands of our individual agencies rather than on the federal government as a whole. Agency missions are more focused, easier to explain as well as understand and often have higher favorability ratings than the government as a whole. Also frankly, there are some very bad apples in the government barrel (both individuals and agencies) who need to clean up their act or have it cleaned up for them. Why should the 85% of government workers continually be saddeled with rebranding the entire federal government when the more effective answer would be to weed out the bad apples and focus on providing value which will enhance our personal and agency brand.

Profile Photo Samuel Lovett

@Dannielle: love your list of 10 addtl suggestions. That should be a poster above the coffee maker/water cooler in every office. All great points to remember, especially that #1, start with yourself– be the change you want to see– lead by example

Profile Photo Janina R. Harrison

Mmmm, Peter, Weed out all the bad apples? Easier said than done, especially now. Sounds good, but I think they just weakened the whistleblowing laws making it much harder to be someone who is going to risk their job and future to do that weeding.

Maybe I’ll go home and start looking for someplace public to post that I am a federal employee, I work hard, I work smart, and I’m not going to take it anymore!

I told the people I worked with private sector before I started my govie job, that the nice cushy job was working with them in private sector. There is always way more work, short staffed, constant uncertaintly about the budget, and all the negativity. Then, every four years, what change the next group controlling the Whtie House will bring.

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

I think one thing we can definitely do is promote integrity in government. See new blog on this from my page (can’t link from here) – “The Whistleblower’s Brand Paradox.” Be part of the solution.