The past several months have seen the advent of "re-branding" by several of the country's major technology companies. Familiar names, such as Motorola and SBC Pac Bell, that once identified themselves with certain suites of products or services are now branching out, becoming more flexible to meet the demands of a changed government marketplace. In some ways it is unsettling and risky for time-honored names to adopt new identities, but bright minds and strong leaders have calculated the potential return and invested in their evolution.
Governments might consider the wisdom this private-sector model offers. I am concerned about the challenge public information officers and agencies often face in dealing with the press. Those of us who are in contact with government on a daily basis are aware of the good, hard work being done by public-sector employees. Unfortunately, the public does not generally share this perception. Frankly, government has a branding challenge.
It is nothing new, but recent years have fueled the perception that government (at best) obfuscates the truth, or outright lies, and is populated with overpaid, under-worked employees. Decades ago, humorist Will Rogers said; "It's getting so that people are taking their comedians seriously and their politicians as a joke." Even former President Ronald Reagan admitted there was a problem when he said; "The most frightening words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I am here to help.'"
Behind the chuckles these observations bring is a sad truth: Government has a public relations problem and it needs fixing. Nowhere is the truth about public-service work more evident than at our Government Technology Conferences. Thousands of people from the public sector come together to share information and to discover ways to improve government services. These people are the rule in government work, not the exception. The news about dedication and the sense of public responsibility shared by the majority of public employees needs to escape from behind the walls of government.
There is the belief by some leaders that information technology can be a powerful tool in changing the image of government. It is often small triumphs that make a big difference. When residents discover they can bypass long lines at the local department of motor vehicles by conducting business online, or when the legislative process opens up to public scrutiny -- as in Louisiana, where citizens can track state legislative sessions live on the Internet, read amendments to bills as they are being written and e-mail law-makers in the process of law-making -- impressions of government change.
TexasOnline is packing a public relations punch with many of its services. The state's online drivers' license renewal program received a 99.3 percent satisfaction rate based on a survey on the site. In its first six months, 34 percent of total license renewals were completed online. Aware that local government is usually the citizen's most frequent point of contact, Texas also has an aggressive program to include counties and cities in the electronic network. This frequently requires dismantling jurisdictional walls. But, e-government leaders throughout the state are convinced these bold efforts will produce unprecedented results. Although their aim is not specifically to produce better public relations for governments, this is certain to be an outcome.
However powerful, information technology is only a tool. If governments truly want to change public perception, it will take time to undo the past. This task falls to those in positions of leadership who must set a new tone and develop a strategic plan to re-brand government in the collective mind of the public it serves and in the media.
Good media relations are not an accident. They are the result of a strategic plan that supports open communication, relationship building, education and outreach. Digital governments at all levels can use technology as a medium to deliver a positive message to the press and to the public.