Opinions about branding by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Why do people love to hate the Department of Homeland Security? 7 reasons and 10 brand "cures"

The Department of Homeland Security does a critical job protecting the United States. Why then if you look it up on the Internet, do you find what can only be described as an outpouring of contempt? Some examples:

  • Milcom Monitoring Post: "I said this when Congress shoved this insanity known as the Department of Homeland Security down the American taxpayers throats--"This will be one of the biggest waste of time, money, energy, manpower and skin in US Government history."
  • Kerfuffles: "If Americans were truly serious, they would elect a 100% brand new United States Congress and a new President who would drive a bulldozer through...the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.). "
  • Suzatlarge: "Our fine bureaucrats in the Department of Homeland Security [sic] would rather watch our country’s buildings burn down than let a single questionable person sneak across the border. On a firetruck. With flashing lights and sirens. Responding to a fire call. I wish I were making this up. This federal agency has gone beyond incompetence - into insanity."

It is hard to understand how things have deteriorated to this point, especially since DHS (at least in its earliest stages) was strongly devoted to branding. In "The Image of Security;
Homeland Chief Tom Ridge, Keeping Up His Appearances," The Washington Post (May 22, 2003) talks about how former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and his aides were preoccupied with image issues:

"Tom Ridge, 57, is talking a lot about "branding" these days....Nearly all politicians care about branding....But Ridge is the rare public official who uses the term. He is attuned to small details of his department's "visual brand." These include the creation of DHS logos, patches and signs."

"Ridge is selling the brand hard....He wants Americans to know he's doing more than just waiting. He wants to make the "respected brands" of the Homeland Security agencies (FEMA, Customs, Coast Guard) as powerful as the brands of the U.S. military (Army, Navy, Air Force)."

"From the outset, Ridge's staff worked strenuously to market him as a reassuring presence. 'When people see him, we want them to think, "My babies are safe,"' a top aide said shortly after Ridge started at the White House."

From my perspective, there are a number of issues at work here:

  1. The lingering effects of the Katrina disaster
  2. Resentment of President Bush and his policies
  3. Longstanding paranoia about the federal government "taking over" at the state and local level
  4. Fear of another 9/11...and the wish to deny that the nation is confronting a long-term terrorist crisis
  5. Fear/perception of corruption/incompetence at the Department of Homeland Security (the TV series "Jericho"); publicity over reported corruption, however minor
  6. The immigration crisis/Lou Dobbs' continuing series on CNN, "Broken Borders"
  7. The reluctance of agencies to aggressively brand themselves for fear of being labeled propagandists

What can Homeland Security do about this? Essentially, the agency has to treat its beleaguered reputation like a full-fledged crisis, and do the following:

  1. Engage with its critics point-by-point, at every opportunity and in every public forum, especially on blogs, which are so virulently anti-DHS
  2. Demonstrate to the American public the dedication of its employees to public service
  3. Show integration and cooperation among its component agencies--that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
  4. Proclaim its accomplishments at every opportunity online and in person, via speaking opportunities at conferences and trade shows
  5. Make special efforts to publicize partnerships with state and local authorities
  6. Initiate a public education campaign about terrorism, its risk to our homeland, and how Homeland Security is planning to combat it
  7. Embed the media with its component agencies as they go about doing their jobs, and have the media report back on what they see--generally play up the successes of its component agencies
  8. Downplay the impact of politics on its operations and play up protective measures that have broad-based support
  9. Create a special publicity campaign for FEMA to demonstrate how it has grown since the Katrina debacle
  10. Initiate publicity around employee corruption--how it is identified and rooted out of the agency

The Department of Homeland Security is a vital government entity doing vital public service, but it needs the support of the public in order to really be effective. Following these brand measures would help.