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Restoring the Brand

Defending government in an anti-government age.

Defending government in an anti-government age.

Last fall, Washington-area viewers of the Sunday morning talk shows got a steady dose of commercials featuring Federal News Radio's Mike Causey. Pointing to a studio backdrop of the U.S. Capitol, Causey tells the camera affably that "it's Politics 101 that the people in that building respect the strength of groups of people more than individuals."

The TV spot, called "Us vs. Them" by its creators, is a recruitment pitch for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. The organization is just one of an array of unions and federal employee associations that have launched or accelerated public outreach campaigns to counter the recent surge in anti-government sentiment.

The National Treasury Employees Union has sprayed the landscape with public service ads under the theme "They Work for U.S." The American Federation of Government Employees is taking a more granular approach, staging rallies and rolling out social media messages and Web micro campaign sites defending workers at specific agencies. They include SavetheVA.org (focused on the Veterans Affairs Department), PreserveYourSocial Security.org (the Social Security Administration) and ProtectYourJob.org (the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). The National Federation of Federal Employees offers downloadable recruiting flyers with such slogans as "Congress has big plans for your paycheck."

In Congress, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has taken over a practice begun in 2009 by then-Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., of giving regular floor speeches honoring exemplary federal employees.

During a time of pay freezes and across-the-waterfront budget cuts, what could be thought of as the "federal brand" has in many minds been tarnished. For many citizens, all it takes to cement a negative view of government is news stories about air traffic control supervisors falling asleep on duty, allegations (since discredited) that the Justice Department spent $16 apiece on muffins at a conference, or revelations that the Office of Personnel Management mishandled an upgrade of the USAJobs.gov site.

To no one's surprise, deficit-wary Republicans have kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of federal agencies and employees since the GOP victories in the 2010 elections. "Federal workers are reaping unconscionable salaries, which with benefits can exceed those of similar jobs in the private sector by 60 percent to 80 percent," Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., said at a March hearing. "We're paying too many people too much money," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told a radio host in November 2010 while pressing for a 10 percent federal pay cut.

In August 2011, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 11 percent of Americans were "basically content" with the federal government, down from 22 percent last winter. And a Gallup poll in September found that Americans estimate the government wastes 51 cents on the dollar, the highest level since the question was first posed in 1979.

"Trust in the federal government has been falling from a high in 1963 of about 80 percent to around 30 percent today," says Marc Holzer, dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University's Newark campus. "This is discouraging to people who work for the federal government.

"The public is upset about taxes, but federal employees are spending efficiently and wisely, for the most part," he adds. "What they do is not clear to people who are paying their salaries."

Negative stereotypes derive in part from the expansion of government's role in American lives, says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "When government gets involved in moral issues such as abortion and gay rights, it tells some people that their views are not acceptable," she says. "It was easier to be good citizens when government did a lot less."

Many observers distinguish between the behemoth of government in the abstract and the good deeds of specific agencies and civil servants. "The American people don't have a solid understanding of the difference between state, local and federal governments," says Lara Shane, vice president for communications and research at the Partnership for Public Service. "They're all painted with the same brush, and Congress' ratings are at an all-time low."

While employee associations and unions have long made it their mission to present the case for greater respect for civil servants, today's budget emergency has prompted the groups to step up their outreach. They're engaging in sophisticated multimedia strategies, both short term and long term, in their bid to shift public attitudes.

None of the campaigns is coordinated or vetted by the Obama administration. But Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry says, "to the extent they are factual and respectfully done, it obviously would help our cause. We share the goal of showing that federal employees are motivated by the importance of their mission. Despite the political snow, sleet or ice, they will still get the job done."

Honoring the Everyday

"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." That punchy copy is part of a pair of NTEU public service video announcements showcasing individual federal employees. They were broadcast in 2011 between July and October in more than 25 major media markets, airing on television more than 2,700 times and making 83.8 million audience impressions or exposures to viewers, the union says. Audio versions have been aired voluntarily 12,400 times by 115 radio stations, for more than 17.6 million impressions.

The idea is to "make the public think about the services that are expected and how different it would be if federal employees were not there," says NTEU President Colleen Kelley. These include Internal Revenue Service workers, who despite their unpopularity, help taxpayers file returns; Food and Drug Administration inspectors who confronted the recent outbreak of illness from contaminated cantaloupes; and Social Security Administration employees who know that almost everyone at some point will collect that agency's benefits.

"It's not the message but the facts that are missing," she says. Most Republican critics and Tea Party activists "are pretty clueless about the real work of the employees they want to eliminate." Survey questions asking generally whether there are too many federal employees draw an enthusiastic yes, she adds, but "polls over time show that when the public is asked about interaction with federal employees, they are overwhelmingly positive about how their problem was solved."

Indeed, pollster language is crucial. Shane recalls a survey several years ago where the words "federal government" elicited a mediocre approval rate. In the same survey, "federal workforce" drew high marks, but "federal bureaucrat" scored very low. "Bureaucrat is a charged, inappropriate word," she says. "If we see it used in an article, we write a letter to the editor."

NARFE has built on its recruiting ads with a campaign called "Protect America's Heartbeat," which profiles individual federal employees and asks retirees around the country to donate to keep the spots on the air. The organization's former legislative director, Dan Adcock, says the ads are designed to "put a human face on the federal worker who is demonized as a faceless bureaucrat." They have appeared on TV, radio and buses in the Washington area at a time of "the greatest threat in a generation to the benefits of federal employees and retirees," he says.

NARFE also has been collecting stories of federal retirees and posting videos of their accomplishments on YouTube. It helps to have a "media hook," Adcock says, recalling that after the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, NARFE helped a retired federal meteorologist publish an op-ed in Politico arguing against budget cuts in weather forecasting.

Some branding efforts have a theoretical underpinning. AFGE's agency-specific approach is part of a longer range plan, according to Gerald Swanke, a national vice president and communications strategist at the union. "There is concern that unions spend lots of time responding to urgent crises, but not much on the overall brand of good government and government workers," he says. AFGE's goal is "not to brand us as a labor organization using collective bargaining, but as the village image of a community," as opposed to the consumer's image.

The notion that citizens should view government not as a means to unite around causes but as a powerful outside force to be resisted by smart-shopping consumers began during the Reagan years, Swanke says. Then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought a "brief lapse" in which the public celebrated the value of firefighters and other public sector first-responders, he says. That has given way during the current budget crisis to a "politically popular bandwagon promoting the idea that 'we need cheaper government.' The deficit issue is just a veil for a debate on the purpose of government," he says.

Improving the image of federal work has for years been the goal of the Partnership for Public Service, which organizes the annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals and conducts events during the annual Public Service Recognition Week in conjunction with a coalition known as the Public Employees Roundtable. One goal of the awards, known as the Sammies, Shane says, is to publicize agency successes beyond the Beltway. Nominees can come from agency managers, rank-and-file employees or from news reports spotted by Partnership staffers. "Tying it to the budget crisis gives our message greater relevance, but the main thing is still attracting top talent into government," Shane says. "If government is maligned, citizens lose faith and the top talent will have a lot of choices. They won't select the organization with the worst reputation."

Similar themes dominate the ongoing projects of the Senior Executives Association. "We do a lot to promote the brand, particularly the idea that senior executives are very talented and perform a valuable public service," says William L. Bransford, the group's longtime general counsel. That agenda includes SEA's annual Presidential Distinguished Rank Award banquet, a black-tie gala that draws valuable media coverage for top federal executives who share millions of dollars in bonuses for having collectively saved the government billions.

SEA also helps with Public Service Recognition Week. "We only care about one thing, which is promoting public service and getting people on the Hill to acknowledge and recognize public employees," Bransford says. When Congress contemplates across-the-board budget cuts rather than cuts to specific programs, it doesn't always respect the need for a "vibrant senior-level workforce," he adds.

Administration Input

During Public Service Recognition Week in May 2011, the White House issued a proclamation of thanks to agencies "for doing more with less," signed by 12 Cabinet members, plus General Services Administrator Martha Johnson and OPM's Berry. It was accompanied by a Web video thank-you featuring Michelle Obama and an installment of an ongoing OPM initiative highlighting individual employees called Feds Unscripted.

"Federal workers are at the heart of what we do," Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told agency managers at a September event sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service. "We owe [them] gratitude." The administration appears confident morale is holding up during the current call for sacrifice. "It's doing amazingly well," says Berry, reporting survey results showing that 92 percent of federal employees "say their work is important and over 97 percent say they're willing to put in extra effort when it's needed to get the job done." The reason, he says, is they "are motivated by mission. Defense civilians know that the warfighter on a frozen mountaintop in Afghanistan needs them to send supplies and provide real-time intelligence. A mortgage fraud investigator at Justice knows that seniors can lose their homes if she doesn't stop the criminals who are preying on them."

But good-government groups and employee organizations aren't always pleased with official defenses of the federal brand. Perhaps due to resource constraints, "the government doesn't do a good job of showing its success stories," Shane says. "It doesn't personalize things well." The administration did communicate well on the raid that took out Osama bin Laden, she adds. "If the government integrated every success like that, the public would get a complete picture."

Kelley says, "OMB rarely talks about work or the value of front-line federal employees," and she wishes OPM would respond more quickly to attacks. "Most of the public doesn't know what OPM is, but it does help when they get out there and speak."

SEA has been disappointed that the Obama administration has not publicized the Presidential Rank Awards program, possibly because the winners receive cash bonuses. "It seems the administration doesn't want to highlight it because of the negative public perception of bonuses," says Bransford. "But they pale in comparison to Wall Street bonuses, and they're a good deal for the American people."

Howard Risher, an author who consults for the government on pay issues, also says the federal branding effort has a long way to go. "The Marines understand branding. It's more than PR-and it's certainly not defensive," he says. "The question is, why would someone find a career with [an agency] an exciting prospect? Each federal agency needs to develop a 'rocket to the moon' answer."

Measuring Impact

The combined but varied efforts by nongovernmental organizations appear to be built as much on hope as on hard-headed techniques with measurable impact. "If the public understood that the federal government is the excellent investment it is," says Rutgers' Holzer, "trust would improve and people would be more willing to invest their tax dollars."

As much as is practicable, the branding campaigns are built on market research, Shane says. That means probing which messages resonate, who the messenger should be and which media are demographically best for reaching the target audience. If strategists start a campaign by documenting baseline attitudes on the importance of government service, then they can measure awareness levels, attitudes and behavior changes, such as whether more people are considering a federal career.

"There are metrics such as how many see the ads, how many changed their attitudes, and did they take steps such as visiting USAJobs.gov," she says. Planners can measure "earned media" (journalistic coverage), website visits and the number of brochures downloaded. Proving impact "is hard because it's a circumstantial case and many factors are beyond our control, such as the government making a huge blunder as it did with Hurricane Katrina, in the middle of our campaign," Shane says. "But it's a multiyear commitment." To AFGE's Swanke, "the metrics are anecdotal." When he goes to conservative venues and says public employee unions are "providing some checks and balances at agencies, that kind of dialogue resonates with about 95 percent of the audience; only about 5 percent say it's self-interest fighting for pay," he says.

His group's strategy has incorporated language techniques advanced by conservative consultant Frank Luntz and liberal academic George Lakoff. That involves steering clear of "policy wonk" vocabulary, connecting emotionally and avoiding isolating the "middle-of-the-road person but still messaging the base audience," Swanke says. In today's cluttered media environment, it's important to "touch people's hearts, because they're not listening to what is rational or logical."

Bransford says at first glance it might appear that the continuing negative media attention is a sign that the groups' branding efforts have been futile, "but it's a measure of how worse things would have been if we hadn't done it." The fact that bills to reduce federal retirement benefits, for example, have not been enacted is one measure of success, even if it was accomplished quietly, he contends. "We have changed the narrative in the unrelenting attacks on federal employees," NARFE's Adcock says. Some of the think tanks have an ideological bias against government, and by extension against federal workers," he says. "There's lots of demonizing by the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which have preconceived ideas of federal employees as overpaid. But we have evidence to refute it."

NTEU's Kelley cites as an encouraging sign her talks with newly hired feds. "With all this talk of downsizing, they're still proud of their work and still convinced they made the right decision to work for the government," she says.

Even so, the target audience may need reminding again in two or three months, she adds. "The potential for things to get better by 2012 is pretty slim-these are very difficult times," Kelley says. "You can make headway, but it's slower than we'd like. It's baby steps."