Why Feds Don’t Need Rebranding – Part I

Does the Federal Government need to rebrand itself, as some have recently suggested, due to low public approval, politically-charged rhetoric, and negative stereotypes of Federal employees?

I think not. Rather, I stipulate that:

1) Rebranding Feds is unnecessary and inadvisable at this time, and

2) There is no real “crisis” for Feds that warrants a massive rebranding campaign.

Public Perception of Feds

However, prior to exploring this topic further, we first need to examine and understand what public perception of Government means on a non-superficial level. Second, if there were to be any massive rebranding effort — which I currently deem inappropriate — it must be based on specifics, not generalities, in order to have the desired effect. Moreover, we must look at the underlying factors, both macro and micro, of how public opinion of Feds is shaped at any given point in time. Most notably, public perception of Government depends on multiple factors, including specific issues of the day, the collective mood of the country, political rhetoric, and stereotypes about Feds. Thus, consider the following:

Feds should NOT be engaged in a popularity contest

Civil servants are not politicians. Too many of today’s spineless politicos often base their words, work and vailed wisdom solely on public opinion. Yet, as career civil servants, we are neither in a popularity contest nor in a quest to win votes for re-election. Rather, we are responsible for doing the best job we can for the public at large — regardless of what the public may think about us. So let’s leave the popularity contest and polling-based decisions linked to fluid public opinion for our elected officials to tackle. As Feds, we must focus like a lazer beam on the job at hand, civil service.

The truth is that Feds have been used as political pawns during many times throughout history — this is nothing new. Yet the overwhelming majority of Feds continue to perform their jobs effectively, admirably, and to the best of their ability despite public opinion, not because of it. Like the cycles of the moon, public perceptions of Government wax and wane. Public opinion of Feds is based upon a number of factors, some of which we have no control over.

Why public opinion of Feds is fractious

Some of the current factors causing negative attitudes toward Feds are based on the collective mood of the country. Today’s public opinion of Feds, may be related, but not limited, to factors such as: a lingering lackluster economy and struggling housing market, high unemployment, stock market jitters, and Federal benefit reductions, to name a few. This is all buttressed by one Party’s insidious election-year political rhetoric demonizing Government in general and Feds in particular. The widely reported scandals and malfeasance at GSA, TSA, and the Secret Service, for starters, only add fuel to the fire. Let’s also not forget about the continuing political gridlock on Capitol Hill and how that affects the public mood. President Truman’s admonition of a “Do-Nothing Congress” is just as applicable today as it was back then. But some politicians would rather point the finger at Feds than be held accountable for their own legislative failings and partisan inaction.

Thus, it’s no big surprise that this confluence of negative realities has led the public to think more poorly of Government overall — whether Federal, State or Local. During so-called bad times, the Government as a whole, rightly or wrongly, takes the brunt of public blame for the nation’s collective ills and/or misfortunes (ie. “Kick the Dog” syndrome). Feds are sometimes an easy target, albeit unfairly. However, public opinion and polling results merely represent a snapshot in time that change with the times.


*** Note: the views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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David B. Grinberg

Dannielle: your substantive intention to rebrand and improve the image of Feds is indeed admirable. However, the timing and strategic planning of such a massive effort may best be left for another day. If and when that day arrives, we need more specifics and fewer generalities to produce a truly effective strategic campaign with measurable results. Perhaps one day, when Federal coffers are full, we can collaborate on it. Until then, we will have to respectfully agree to disagree.

Dannielle Blumenthal

It seems to me that when Feds’ salaries and benefits are under attack that there is indeed a real crisis.

None of this is about popularity or superficially.

Branding is about creating a perception of value that aligns with the audience’s wants.

I would argue that by ignoring the public and burying our heads in the sand we harm both them and ourselves. They have a right to know where their money is going and about our attitude toward working or them.

I would also argue that there are some valid criticisms we need to respond to. This is not lipstick on a pig stuff. It is changing to become more efficient, responsive, technologically adept.

The situation is real and our livelihoods are at stake. We respond by increasing our delivery of value and communicating same. Frame in audience’s terms. Customize as needed – this is not vagueness but recognition that a specific solution is complex and takes massive coordination.

David B. Grinberg

Dannielle: While I admire your vision and tenacity, you need to balance that against political and fiscal reality. Please note that the US Government at every level has recently received record-low public approval ratings, not to mention being “under attack” (as you say) not just today, but throughout history. It’s not just Feds being challenged based on public approval, but the US Supreme Court (44% recent approval), US Congress (below 10% recent approval), as well as State and Local Governments — which are cutting jobs and benefits at a MUCH higher rate than that for Feds. These other Government entities have not implemented massive PR campaigns or rebranding initiatives to boost their public image or justify their existence. Why not? There are many good reasons and sound explanations, some of which I touch upon in my post. Moreover, Feds have many influential friends in the US Congress who always fight on our behalf to protect jobs, pay and benefits. We also currently have a President who supports the Federal workforce. You mentioned other Fed allies in your post, such as Government unions which also wield substantial power and influence. Further, there are a large number of other Federal stakeholders to protect and preserve or interests. Thus, THE SKY IS NOT FALLING FOR FEDS, regardless of whether one thinks there’s a real “crisis” here or not, and regardless how such a “crisis” is defined. Career Feds are not supposed to base their work, much less bend or break, on the whims of public opinion. That’s for elected public officials and political appointees to deal with, not civil servants. Feds have always been political pawns in election years — again, nothing new here. Yet to claim our “livelihoods are at stake” is really blowing it out of proportion. I’ve been a career Fed for many years, as well as a political appointee before that in the White House and at OMB. Thus, I can offer you some firsthand advice: if you want to wield more influence over the leadership and direction of our Government, then YOU should run for public office or try to receive a political appointment where you have more authority to actually influence Government-wide decisions about multi-million dollar PR proposals. If that’s not your thing, then there’s always the SES.

David B. Grinberg

On another point, how many of us would like to see these polling questions asked of the public at large: 1) Do you think the Federal Government should spend millions of your taxpayer dollars, plus precious time and human resources, to launch a massive public relations campaign focused on rebranding to justifying its value and existence? 2) Do you think non-political Federal civil servants should be more concerned about public approval ratings of Government, or stay narrowly focused on doing their jobs well to best serve the American people? These survey research questions, if ever asked, would certainbly yield interesting results.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Branding is a business exercise not a PR strategy and it saves more than it costs. You are confusing branding and PR – most people do.

David B. Grinberg

Dannielle: as you know, questions still swirl surrounding the interaction and overlap between PR and Branding. There continues to be an open debate on the topic, which is best left for a separate post. However, I agree with most PR and Branding experts who assert the two are not mutually exclusive. As one industry expert put it: “PR is critically important to branding; perhaps even its most important element.http://craigpearce.info/marketing/pr-good-branding/. Another industry expert says,”PR can deliver brand messages…this form of brand building is considered to be effective and efficient.” http://www.brandchannel.com/features_effect.asp?pf_id=166. So again, let’s just agree to disagree.