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Federal agency branding - yes, it's allowed!

Some people may think that branding a federal agency is, quite simply, not allowed. This is because we are strictly prohibited from engaging in propaganda—meaning any activity done simply for "self-aggrandizement" or "puffery" of the agency itself. And isn’t that what brand-building is, simply the act of creating a well-known name?

Actually, no. Brand-building is about creating a very specific kind of relationship between an organization and its stakeholders, a relationship in which the stakeholders understand 1) that the organization exists 2) what an organization is promising to do for them and 3) what they must do in return to obtain goods or services from the organization (pay a fee, comply with specific rules, etc.). Ideally, to have strength, that relationship will be based on an image of the organization that is positive, high-level, and conceptually abstract—representing something more than just what the organization does on a day-to-day basis. For example, the Coast Guard arguably stands for “bravery,” not just “protecting the nation’s waterways.”

In a federal agency context, branding is accomplished through “disseminating information to the citizenry about the agency, its policies, practices, and products,” a role for public affairs that is specifically allowed by the Government Accountability Office. (Branding is also accomplished through the actions of the agency itself, but the public affairs officer has no control over that except to try and explain those actions.)

People who think agencies shouldn’t build a brand don’t understand the distinction between brand-building as a process and a brand as an outcome. The process is about sharing information to help key stakeholders understand what the organization is about and how they should relate to it. The outcome is indeed a well-known name that is associated with certain promises.

(Now, there can be a very fine line between disseminating information about what an agency is and does for the sake of promoting positive compliance with agency rules, and promoting that agency’s existence just for the sake of getting the public to be aware of the name. The difference has to do with intent.)

So far it may sound like agency branding begins and ends with citizen education initiatives. Yet this is far from the case, because the brand is shaped by all the communication that goes on about and around it. We can issue press releases on our website until we are blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is that the public is equally if not more influenced by others who are disseminating communication about us:
  • The press writes about our rules and requirements as well as any other story of interest to the public that concerns our agency;
  • Congress will hold hearings about programs, events, and incidents that affect our agency; and
  • The public will write about our communication and actions themselves, for example, in blogs and other social media vehicles such as Wikipedia.

All of those communications affect our brand because they affect the way the public understands and relates to us. So if we are to maintain a positive relationship with the public, in which the public understands who we are, what we do, and why we do it, we are responsible for engaging with all of these communicators to make sure that our message is clear. When we write op-eds in the press, respond to Congressional invitations to testify, and respond to citizen questions on our website, we are also branding the agency. Again, the end goal is to create and sustain a relationship with the public (not to mention our own employees) that is productive, leading to rules being followed with a sense of pride and enthusiasm for supporting the higher-level purpose of the agency.

If branding makes sense and is allowed, why does it seem to be in such short supply in the federal government? Perhaps this is due to the common, but misguided view that a public affairs officer’s job is limited to simply supplying information about particular incidents, events, and programs without telling a broader story about what the agency is, why it exists, and how those incidents, events, and programs work together. It is important to tell the larger story in order to impress upon the public mind that the agency is a cohesive whole, and not just an assortment of individual sub-departments dealing with isolated incidents. It is possible that many federal public affairs officers shy away from creating that bigger picture because they don’t want to be seen as promoting the agency for its own sake—that they are afraid of being seen as propagandizing.

The reality is, there are very few strong federal agency brands. And those brands that are strong—like the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the FBI and the CIA—have become well-known not necessarily because of their public affairs offices, but because they have become visible through their extraordinary actions as portrayed in the news, on TV, and in the movies. For example, in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Coast Guard rose to the rescue, with images of Coast Guard leadership saturating the media. And there have been many memorable portrayals of Secret Service, FBI and CIA agents in the movies and on TV.

Has anyone tried to build a federal agency brand from within a federal agency? No doubt many agencies are engaging in branding to some extent or another. But until we get rid of that dangerous misconception that branding is equivalent to propagandizing, they will likely encounter obstacles that prevent them from being fully successful.

The bottom line: for maximum effectiveness, federal agencies should engage in more than just providing information—they need to brand. Not for the sake of creating a name, but because it’s the way to build the best possible relationship they can with the American people—increasing compliance with agency rules and demonstrating to the taxpayer that their dollars are being invested wisely.

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