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Why Aren't Civil Servants More Vocal? The Case For Clarifying "Personal Use"

Kindergarten - Dental Care

As we all know by now, when it comes to the government not doing its job, the public has just about had enough. According to data released by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press on October 18, 2013:

"The share of the public saying they are angry at the federal government, which equaled an all-time high in late September (26%), has ticked up to 30%. Another 55% say they are frustrated with the government. Just 12% say they are basically content with the federal government."

At the same time, the public distinguishes between the federal government as an institution and the federal workers who populate it. In fact, views of federal workers are more than twice as likely to be positive as negative. According to Pew:

"Federal workers, hundreds of thousands of whom were furloughed during the shutdown, also are viewed positively: By about two-to-one (62% to 29%), more have a favorable than unfavorable opinion of federal government workers."

No doubt the shutdown had an impact on these numbers, and one can take into account that sympathy boosted the favorability rating of feds.

But there is other data suggesting a difference in perception between federal employees and the structure that surrounds them.

* In 2011 the media watchdog published a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services decrying its "Soviet-Style Power Grab," in effect censorship, following the implementation of a new policy requiring employees to go through Public Affairs before speaking to the media.

* In 2013, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms received negative media coverage for its attempt to block whistleblower agent John Dodson from publishing his account of the Fast & Furious scandal on the grounds that it would hurt "morale." A complaint was successfully filed and Dodson was allowed to publish the book providing the agency had an opportunity to make redactions and also with the specification that he not make financial profit from it.

From where I sit as a federal employee, both of the examples above have some logic to them. Obviously "morale" is not a reason to censor a book, but:

* Ethically, federal employees are not allowed to double-dip, earning money from the work they did specifically for the government.

* As a law enforcement agency the ATF has to redact information that might be law enforcement sensitive.

* More broadly, any organization - public or private - is obligated to ensure that what its employees say is backed by its "full faith and credit." It is critically important, especially where data is concerned, that the audience understand whether someone's words represent the government's official position or simply their opinion. (In today's 24/7/365 news cycle, stopping to check is especially important to prevent the release of inaccurate information.)

All that said, there remains the problem of distrust in government. And in my opinion, the reason why people don't trust us, is more often than not because we don't say anything for fear of creating problems.

The answer is not to force agencies to pry open their lids to the point where employees can run rampant, and say whatever they want as "authorized speakers" for the agency, without any review or consultation. That would be irresponsible as well as logistically impossible.

What is doable is the clarification of guidance on what employees can say and do on their personal time, and in their personal capacity. At this point I think it is safe to say that most people just don't know what is and isn't OK. Even if the concern only belongs to 15% of the workforce, that small segment could provide a huge amount of information and insight that is perfectly fine to share.

Inside the government, a common question regarding Freedom of Information Act requests is, "Are you sure we can release that? It's embarrassing."

And the answer is always, "Yes, of course we have to release it - embarrassment is not a grounds for withholding information."

Among the government workforce, the corresponding question is, "Are you sure we can tell other people what we do, especially on a blog? I might be breaking some rule somewhere...or my supervisor might find out and get me in trouble."

The resulting radio silence is harmful, both to the public and to the federal government itself. A more open dialogue between employees and the public would provide a desperately needed window into the workings of its various agencies. Promote public trust in government. And likely even help us to work more effectively and efficiently.

Remember when they said "social media will ruin everything?" Look how much good it has done for the world - in effect crowdsourcing logic.

Clarifying the guidance for federal employees with respect to free speech on personal time and personal equipment would do much the same thing.

* All opinions my own.

"Breaking Bad," Looking Bad, & Looking Good

did not want to watch 'Breaking Bad' at all. It looked like a boring man's show. 

Plus I work for the government. It seemed wrong to celebrate someone selling methamphetamine. 

On top of that it sounded like a repeat of the Showtime series 'Weeds.' (A desperate character has no money, needs cash, sells drugs.)

But then I overheard the other mothers at the swimming pool.

"Did you see it? I can't wait."

"I know!"

So I convinced my husband to watch the pilot episode with me on Netflix.


I realized that the story was not about the plot at all. Rather it is about the character. Confronted with the worst news of his life -- the impending loss of his life -- he goes from pushover to man.

The title of the show refers to this. Walter 'Breaks Bad' -- crosses the line-- after a lifetime of others telling him what to do. 

To illustrate this, we see Walt get humiliated a lot.

His friend the DEA agent makes fun of him at his own birthday party and brags about his Glock gun.

His wife gives him lifeless vegan bacon.

A brilliant physics teacher, the students interrupt him in class. 

And at his second job, answering phones at a car wash, he is humiliated into washing the cars themselves - even those of the insolent students.

Walt collapses one day. He finds out he is going to die of inoperable lung cancer. And desperation makes him not care. About being nice, about being quiet, even about going to jail. 

In the beginning of the show, Walt is a very unlikable character. The other characters treat him as such: straight-laced, uptight, weak.

But then we see the facade fall apart. We see him deciding not to take it anymore, to act instead of being a victim. We think about the complexity of this person, who cooks up a brew that destroys people's lives but insists that it be "chemically pure."

Wally's son is disabled and walks with crutches. Some guys hassle him. Walt heads straight toward the bullies and kicks the lead jackass in the shins, hard. And holds him down. "How does that feel? Who's crippled now?"

I don't endorse assault or drug dealing. I don't think we need an army of Walts. But there's a lesson here for PR. 

It's not about trying to look perfect.

If you want people to like you, let them watch you struggling to achieve something. Whether or not you get there, the credibility is worth more than a facade.

* All opinions my own.

Life Is Matching Passion With Purpose


What does G-d actually do all day, sitting around in Heaven?

According to Jewish tradition, The Divine One plays matchmaker.

And if it didn't work out the first time, the second one is pre-arranged too.

The notion of bride and groom is everywhere in Judaism.

In fact we believe that weddings themselves actually symbolize the union of G-d and the Jewish people.

Human capital consulting as G-d's calling - what a strange way to put it, but that's what it is.

Every one of us has a passion. Joined with the right person, life takes on a "together purpose." It is greater than, and different than, each one apart. It is a chemical reaction.

When you start out your career you think that it's a technical minefield out there. My portfolio versus yours; my internships versus yours; my college versus yours.

It is true. When you start out they want you for your "proven aptitude."

But as you grow up and go up the ladder at work, you will find that what "they" value is something different altogether.

One of those things is that uncanny ability to read people.

Even the most evil boss can be good if they nail down what it is you do very well, and then set you free to do it. "Marrying" you to a function where those particular skills explode like rockets to outer space.

Outside of work we encounter things. It's like they were destined in advance. Whatever it is that drives us, encounters something else and we are forced to tease out who we are and what we're doing here.

The Dalai Lama says that life is really suffering. Buddhism is so smart that way. It's offered as a practical approach for considering the classic question that people of all faiths ask: "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

My thing is, life does not have to be painful. All of us are here for a reason - like soldiers on a mission. It's up to us to look inside - find what drives us - and use that energy to make the most of what we encounter in the world.

* All opinions my own.

'Black Swan' and the Fallacy of Neutrality

Ballerinas must be good or evil. Natalie Portman in Black Swan

The other day I was fascinated by Target's decision to carry (kosher) Meal Mart pastrami and corned beef in one of its stores. Just the sight of it brought back so many good memories. 

At the same time it was jarring to see the brand in Target. In my mind it belonged on the Upper West Side or in Monsey. I should have had to order it on the Internet and have it delivered in dry ice.

"That is fascinating," I said to my daughter. "Who would have thought that a Target out here would have this?" And I pointed to the meat.

"Why do you like marketing so much?" she said to me.

The question caught me aback. Why do I like marketing? What a crazy question!

Doesn't everybody?

I tried to explain it to her. What fascinates me about marketing is the play between truth and its representations. That is, I know that there is essential reality and I know that there are ways of describing it. 

The tension between the two, the need to be selective and intentional, the manipulations and omissions and subterranean "narrative wars" that influence public opinion to the point where we make war or decide to have peace - these are what keep me thinking and reading.

For example the current Washington meme, "We've had too much divisiveness." And how that is used to push an agenda across, not to actually bring people together.

Or the new "hold me accountable," when there is a lack of clear and meaningful action to support those appetizing and long-awaited words.

We learned a long time ago in sociology school that disinterested inquiry is a lie. That's a fancy way of saying - you've always got an opinion.

They had a lot of seminars and incomprehensible books about the subject as I recall. And they all started with the word "post." Postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial. "After."

The basic idea was - we used to be able to call a thing a thing. And now we know, that it is we who are doing the calling.

So when I view an object it is totally different from when you view it. In branding terms, I see pastrami and think of satisfaction, the Sabbath, childhood. Maybe you see it and don't even know what it is. You skipped it because it was the kosher section, just like I would not know what to do with many of the products arranged in the Goya aisle.

It gets even more interesting. The pastrami only becomes pastrami through the process of treating the meat. In an earlier phase it is a calf, then a cow. Then a dismembered corpse. Then a huge rack of raw meat. Much later on it gets shrinkwrapped and a label and we can relate to it as a certain "thing."

What about the fact that I am an object also to myself. In other words, I do not observe the pastrami like a microscope examines a cell. In fact, I observe myself observing. And the reflection changes the nature of that observation. You see this in interviews and focus groups: As soon as I know I am being watched, I change what I think - say - do.

That's why it's better to observe people in a natural shopping environment than to ask them about it. My students used to do this in Consumer Behavior. Throw your textbooks in the trash and watch people. Ask Procter & Gamble about professional anthropology - it is how they make a living.

Hook up people's brains to track their brain wave activity when exposed to a brand. Don't ask them directly - look.

Methodology. How do I know that what I know is true, when multiple perspectives are equally valid and when a single person's perspective will definitively change over time - perhaps even in a single day?

I don't. 

I only know myself, and the only defense against biased judgment is to question oneself and allow others in to do the questioning.

We keep on wishing for neutrality. We want our doctors, our judges, our Presidents to have it. But nobody does. The scientist in the lab coat has made a choice about what to study, has a limited set of tools and their frameworks are dated almost before they begin. 

Even G-d is not neutral - having a vested interest in our growth and evolution toward higher beings.

Neutrality can be made more possible of course. Discussion of limitations, the consistency of rules for investigation, the opening of work to peer review. Why do I think a ballerina must be "pure"?

In the end it is more interesting to be human. And to find out how other human beings think, what they want, and how they're trying to get there by influencing me.

* All opinions my own.

Why Public Affairs Needs A "Brand Hijack" (Toward A Truly User-Driven Engagement Strategy)

Branding has evolved from an advertising-driven discipline to one that is led by social media. This is a scenario in which the user dictates the nature of the brand rather than the brand dictating an image to the user.

The idea that people would be "talking back" to, co-creating, and even overriding Big Brands was unheard of in the age of "Mad Men," but we are seeing this scenario come to pass.

The trend began with a move from solely externally focused branding to externally and internally focused communication in which the brand was said to have "values" that translated to all stakeholders. It is continuing as message senders recognize they must have more than the public's attention in order to be successful.

It's about having a pool of information or content that the user reaches into, pulls something out of, negotiates with in their mind, and returns in the form of an opinion, a creative piece of content, a mashup - a.k.a. "curation."

(A perfect example: The viral Saturday Night Live sendup of on October 26, 2013.)

In the future public engagement is going to mean a fundamental change in the nature of public engagement activities. This post describes what those are, in the form of a Q&A I posted to Quora.

The bottom line is, if public engagement is your goal, then you are in effect selling a message.

To sell that message effectively, you must be completely focused on the user - what they want to hear, how they want to hear it, and what methods make the transmission of information credible.

As the public grows more and more comfortable talking to each other and talking back, the traditional "shove a message down their throat with a press release" is going to be worse than irrelevant. While government will always need to be concerned with providing validated information, its job is not to decide what information the public "should" want to hear but rather to give them the information they demand.

Consequently, the job of the outreach specialist is to find interested parties where they congregate, offer consumable information there, and participate in the conversation that ensues.

The definition of success, in this environment, is a robust conversation - one in which disagreement is not only tolerated but celebrated - one in which all are invited to participate.

Here is the Q&A.

Who originally came up with things like 'brand values', 'missions', 'visions' and models like the 'brand pyramid'? I'm interested in the history of brand strategy. I've read lots of books on brand strategy, and none of them talk about where these ways of doing things came from. Did they come from *someone*? From P&G? Or elsewhere? -  From the Brand Strategy topic page, Quora

(originally posted by me to

  • Concepts tying the brand to a personality, or a set of values or a kind of mission, did not go mainstream until the late 2000s and probably coincide with the popularization of Facebook. 
  • It was only then that - due to social media - the wall between the personal and the professional crumbled to the point that one had to espouse certain personal values in order for those to be taken seriously as part of one's external image.
  • As far as models, they became popular around the mid-2000s as the term "branding" gained currency and everyone wanted to claim a piece of the pie with their own 'methodology'. This especially true around brand equity models.
  • This is my perspective as someone who has worked in branding since 2000. I was hired as VP & Editorial Director for the Brand Futures Group that year; it's a small trendspotting think-tank that was part of Young & Rubicam. (Later they were renamed The Intelligence Factory). 
  • The focus back then was strictly on branding as an offshoot of advertising. That was it: Ads came first, ads built brands, brands added value, and we predicted the trends that would make ads meaningful.
  • When we did research on branding we focused on consumer behavior - not on the relationship between the organization and the employee. It would have been unheard of to call that "branding."
  • In 2001 I was hired by a small company in Washington, DC called The Brand Consultancy which focused on something called "internal branding." This is where you get the whole language of vision, mission, brand values, and so on. 
  • This was completely fascinating to me as a native sociologist and latent organizational development specialist. In the year that I spent working for Y&R I thought that branding was about predicting social behavior. I wrote things like "one day we'll show allegiance to our favorite brands with tattoos" and "we'll be seeing the emergence of single-on-purpose women as a target audience". 
  • But TBC did something completely different. They talked about the brand on the inside, with "Brand Bibles" and training books and concepts like "operationalizing the brand." 
  • The company actually represented a merger between two smaller consultancies, and I had the opportunity to learn directly from the principals regarding how they coached, poked and prodded CEOs into branding not the products but the workforce.
  • As I recall the business was divided between advertising-type services (e.g. logo); brand-type services (e.g. assessment; strategy); and hybrids (e.g. a well designed Brand Bible).
Key Concepts

It was also around this time that I learned about concepts like brand transparency and corporate social responsibility. It became clear to me that every company would have to embrace these as part of their strategic communication plans.

I also led an early social network on Yahoo! Groups where we discussed these topics internationally; wrote articles for a website called Page on AllAboutBranding; and continued researching and writing even after taking a job with the Federal government. 

Brand Values Over The Years
  • The Federal position I received in 2003 was with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency as a writer-editor in Internal Communications. While there, I obtained a graduate certificate in Organization Development and set about creating "advertorials" aimed at internal audiences to "brand" the agency to them. I also became involved in best practices groups that espoused early forms of what was soon to go mainstream - "employee first" brand thinking. I even produced an internal rating system for newsletter articles to promote transparency and engagement, but it was rapidly shot down a few years ahead of its time.
  • Around 2005 I was hired to work in the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, but neither there nor in my first federal job were the words "internal branding" ever uttered. They literally thought of the brand as the name and logo - nothing else. I even did a mission integration project - but it was never called "internal branding."
  • Around 2009 "employer branding" became important as a tool for recruitment and to that end "internal branding" involved a discussion of mission, vision and values.
  • Also around this time social media began to go really mainstream, although initial use was as a means to "spam" the community with one-way messaging.
  • By 2012 things had definitively shifted. I worked for USAID, and it became incredibly important to senior leadership that employees believe in the brand just as much as external parties did. While there, I personally helped lead a mission and values initiative aimed at rediscovering who we were - and in the process raising productivity and morale.
  • Similarly, in my current position at The National Archives, that concept of embodying a set of values is critical. We have an entire internal social network where discussions frequently take place about living up to our mission and core values.
Looking Ahead

In the future I think things are going to go even further, as people demand to look behind the curtain at the brand and mistrust the "official word" in all its forms.

It's really about fostering a conversation between social media and branding, understanding that you cannot be fully authentic all the time nor would you want to be projecting an artificial image.

Three basic changes will go mainstream:
  1. People will want to hear from ordinary members of the organization - NOT "flacks," e.g. public relations representatives. This "brand authenticity" will be demanded. Those who do not comply will be mercilessly made fun of, discredited or ignored. Eventually, for the most part, ordinary staff will be encouraged to speak freely about the company rather than  having the company speak for them.
  2. Disagreements by staff that are expressed in public will not be cause for alarm. It will be acknowledged that having your own ideas is a sign of credibility and will actually make the organization more engaging.
  3. Social media strategy will assume prime importance to brand strategy. It will consist of finding where the conversation is taking place, responding to the questions that users have, and accepting their criticism respectfully. This is the complete opposite of "projecting" a false brand image which has been the traditional cornerstone of branding and is rapidly falling away.
Landmark Publications Around Y2K
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto - which told me it would not be long before people started to talk back to the image makers.
  • "Are The Strategic Stars Aligned For Your Brand?" in Harvard Business Review, by Majken and Schultz - I learned that branding is a holistic exercise connecting internal and external audiences.
  • "The Brand Called You" in Fast Company, by Tom Peters - I learned that you personally would become the product - just as much as the product you sell - and how to optimize my "personal brand" accordingly. 
  • An article I got to later on was Gallup's "The Fifth P" or how people are the un-discussed essential factor in marketing.
* All opinions my own.