Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why Government Must Learn To Love Social Marketing

Americans are instinctively mistrustful of the government. It is popular to laugh at what we say, and to believe that we control the media, and in general to talk about social control through "propaganda."

Knowing this, and because in fact we cannot use appropriated funds for propaganda domestically, the government is nervous about marketing techniques; rightly so.

Unfortunately however, the energy created by this fear dynamic has led us to toss away the baby with the bathwater.

The reality is, we live in a marketing culture. It is impossible to get people’s attention unless you know something about how to engage them. And the government has lots of things to tell people – if only so that they can comply with the law and know where to get the basic services that are due to them.

In addition, we have transitioned from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, as everyone knows. So while in the past it was OK to say “we spend our time processing paperwork…figuring out how to file it is your problem,” today the computer has taken care of the paperwork.

But there is so much other “noise” and distraction out there today, and the general educational level is so poor, that it is incredibly daunting for the average person to comprehend who we are and how we can serve them.

So government desperately needs marketing to do its job. But - contrary to the dark perceptions held by some members of the public - we largely don’t understand what marketing is, refuse to learn it, refuse to hire for it (for the most part), and can’t admit out loud that we need it either. For fear of being condemned. Because we think we need to put the money elsewhere. And so we waste the money that we invest.

Make no mistake about it, if you set something up but don’t communicate about it to anyone, you have achieved absolutely nothing. Or worse. Our failure to communicate has led to massive confusion, misinformation, ridicule and outright anger by the public. They were laughing when we got stuck with the earthquake!

Also, troublingly, it is not uncommon to see private companies selling access to the stuff we offer for free – in a way that that public can understand.

There are some bright lights who re-do our work in a simpler way (e.g. they set up websites that are more user-friendly than ours), but why should we have a parallel structure to the government itself which has to explain what we do?

The persistent fear of marketing in the government, along with the recognition that we desperately need it, feeds a dysfunctional culture where we handle marketing in one of three ways – none of them optimal:

· “Let the vendor handle it” – pay someone millions of dollars for a short-term ad campaign they can walk away from.

· “Let the media handle it” – generate a press release, and let the news report on it through broadcast, print, etc.

· “Let our folks handle it, but don’t train them and don’t call it marketing” – which results in a lot of homemade desktop-published stuff.

King Solomon famously said that there is a time for everything, and this applies to marketing too. We also need specialists in mass media broadcast entertainment, public relations, corporate communication, and the dreaded “b” word, “branding.” Not to mention all things Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more.

Especially given a challenging economy where we don't have a single dollar to waste, we must come to terms with marketing and use it well. Templates, process, infrastructure, training, the works. Hey - I know what it's called - "social marketing." Isn't that an entire sub-industry? How come we don't talk about it or use it commonly? Why isn't it common to have a university degree that focuses on this area in particular?

I work for the government. I like it here. We do hugely important work and we have a great – complicated, urgent, often funny - story to tell. But more important we provide both social services and much-needed social control. And too often the public has no idea what is available to them, what the rules are, or how they can take advantage of all this.

Let’s get with the program now. We need to train our own marketers. And what we can’t do in-house, we should allow the private sector to help us do. Let’s harness their brainpower and heart power to better serve the public. It’s not about propaganda – it is about bringing the nation together.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


Image source here