NextGov.com reports this morning on a study by National Journal Group (owned by the same parent company as NextGov.com) showing that while social media tools are gaining acceptance by federal government agencies, government employees themselves don’t get what all the fuss is about. To them (us? since I’m one of them), social media is blather, noise, babble—a distraction. Quote:
“The study, which looked at Washington insiders' media consumption habits, found that more than half of Capitol Hill staffers, federal executives and employees of corporations, lobbying firms, nonprofits and other private sector organizations view Twitter as "pointless babble." Nearly a third called the service a ‘passing fad.’’
This raises a few interesting questions.
- Which is the authentic government brand? Is it the view of the employees, or the official view of the agencies? Or is it perhaps neither, since brand is commonly understood to be the image of the product, service, or organization in the minds of its stakeholders? Moreover, can we say that there is such a thing as a brand for the whole government, when it is really divided into many diverse agencies with unique functions and a myriad of stakeholders?
- Assuming that the brand of the government is authentically anti-social media (which I do not believe to be the case), should the government or any brand change itself to meet the needs of its customers, or is the brand “entitled” to exist in its own right, and the customers must simply adjust? (This might seem like a stupid question for the private sector since brands require customers to survive, but the relevance has to do with long-term success and how an organization can perhaps stay solvent by setting expectations appropriately and then finding stakeholders who appreciate what the brand does have to offer.)
- With respect to the government as a brand (assuming that it is one, which I do), who is the customer, really? Is it the taxpaying public, since they (we) pay the taxes that ultimately fund the agencies? Or is it really Congress, which determines the level of appropriations given to particular agencies? Or perhaps it is key stakeholder groups outside the agency, who influence the public and congress to think a certain way about what the agency is doing?
OK, there is no way I am ever going to answer all of these heavy questions in a single blog post. But maybe we can just touch on a few broad concepts to get a philosophical base going for future discussion.
- I do agree with the view that the brand is determined by the image that exists in the mind of the customer (or stakeholder, in a government context). That image, in turn, is determined both by the official pronouncements of the agency and the informal communication from staff. The fact that government is experiencing a disconnect in terms of its attitude toward and use of social media means that its image is fractured before the public as well.
- And yes, “the government” is actually a brand in and of itself. This doesn’t mean that individual agencies can’t have their own brands, but the reality is that most of us associate the word “government” with a particular constellation of symbols, images and meanings. That makes it a brand.
- I would even go a step further and say, a brand can exist even when no one intends it to. Because whatever the public or a subset of the public is thinking about as a brand, becomes one by virtue of their collective image of it. In my view this is a critically important insight that too many organizations overlook, because they are so obsessed with wanting to define and control their own public identities. They can’t even begin to entertain the idea that they don’t really have any control over this at all, but rather can only try to influence it by engaging the customer. (First heard this from social media guru Shel Holtz, and he’s right.)
- What about the question of brand authenticity vs. customer satisfaction, which was supposed to be the subject of this post? In the end, I think, it’s really a Darwinian process—evolve or die, and most can’t evolve because their cultures are too entrenched. The notion that you can change a brand’s authenticity in order to keep it afloat with its customers is farfetched. You might be able to tinker with it around the edges or move it forward incrementally, but a major change – such as convincing a huge federal workforce that social media is really hip, cool and now and should replace the standard-issue PDF memos and formal press releases they are used to – is very, very unlikely and would probably cause more harm than good.
- Finally…who is the customer? And whose needs are more important, theirs to get what they need from the government or the government’s to be its authentic “self?” Again, this may sound like a dumb question, but is it really? Because if you look at the way government works, does it not seem to revolve very much around the authenticity of the brand, and not so much around the needs of the taxpayer? Not that this is intentional, if the image exists—rather, there is a lag between the culture as it exists and the development of the culture outside, and its own communication needs.
So assuming that there is a disconnect between government as a brand and American cultural demands, what can be done to smooth it over? My suggestion would be to avoid forcing the issue of social media in its more extreme forms. (Remember that I speak only for myself here and do not represent any agency or institution.) Rather, we might be better off focusing on language and tools that are more “serious” and formal – such as those associated with the President’s Open Government Initiative, and the release of high-value data sets—to accomplish the same goals, but in a way that more closely aligns with the government’s authentic brand. This could help move the government toward meeting the needs of its customers more effectively, but in a way that doesn’t feel like such an uncomfortable stretch.