From Shutdown to Turnaround

How public agencies can leverage their newfound public appreciation

If there is a silver lining in the government shutdown debacle, it shined a light on two things: first, how expansive the impact of public agencies is on our daily lives; and second, that Americans support these agencies — or at least their employees — a lot more than the rhetoric might have you believe. After the political buffoonery of the past month, public service has never felt more culturally relevant.

Evidence of a new wave of support for government workers is showing up across the social spectrum. For weeks during the shutdown, late night host Jimmy Kimmel hired out-of-work government employees to perform odd jobs and made-up tasks for his show. While the gag was intended to garner laughs, Kimmel also used the opportunity to point out, again and again, the essential services that these people weren’t able to provide because of the shutdown.

Major brands got on board, too. U.S. Bank started offering loans ranging from $100 to $6,000 to federal employees impacted by the shutdown, at an annual interest rate of one-one hundredth of a percent if paid back in year. Kraft opened a four-day pop up grocery store in Washington D.C., where the federal government is the largest employer, to provide free groceries to federal workers. Even local retailers lent a hand. In New York City, for instance, the Meatball Shop offered credit accounts to impacted employees who needed their meatball fix while they weren’t getting paid.

In the short-term, these solutions and others are confirmation that the shutdown has bolstered the public’s recognition of the enormous work public agencies do. But in a society that’s quick to forget, that goodwill could evaporate as quickly as it popped up on the radar.

Now that the shutdown is over (hopefully for good), it’s worth reflecting on how the public sector can leverage the goodwill this episode has generated for their work by adopting strong brand management to build support for the long run. With that in mind, we’ve put together a roundup of creative ways that public agencies can keep the momentum going.

Be Relevant

While the public sector has suffered from a humdrum reputation when it comes to innovation, in recent years we’ve seen a wider variety of public agencies tap into the cultural identity of their communities in unexpected ways. They have flexed their brands to inspire pride in their own employees, build broader awareness of their work, and break down the walls that often block real engagement between government and community. Though they already play imperative roles in the public’s lives, these agencies have taken it a step further to connect with people by being more in tune with the zeitgeist.

We’ve seen Berlin’s public transportation organization BVG partner with Adidas to create sneakers with a design inspired by the interior décor of the city’s buses and trains. They served dual purpose, as the tongue of the sneaker was also a functional one-year pass to the mass transit system.

NASA, an agency that has long been ahead of the governmental social media curve, has its own channel on Giphy for anyone wanting to share of out-of-this-world memes with friends and family.

Streetwear brand Only NY has partnered for years with the City of New York’s Parks Department, Department of Transportation, and Department of Sanitation on apparel collaborations that highlight these agencies as authentic New York City brands. In the process, they turn municipal uniforms into fashion statements, allowing the public to literally wear their support for city workers on their sleeves (and chests, and backs).

These public sector leaders have found unique ways to meet their audiences at unexpected touch points and help residents connect with the organizations that keep their communities safe and clean. Next up: how about a list of Yelp reviews of America’s best farm-to-table restaurants curated by USDA employees?

Be Honest

A few years ago, voltage spikes on the longest line of BART, San Francisco’s public transit agency, forced 50 railcars out of service and put sections of tracks out for days, interrupting service for nearly a month. Understandably, the public took to Twitter to voice their outrage. What followed was a lesson any agency can take: sometimes the truth may hurt, but it can also help in a big way.

A communications deputy took over the agency’s Twitter account to respond to people’s concern with a dose of reality: though the agency was doing what it could, its system was not built to handle modern-day crowds. He also talked up an upcoming $3.5 ballot measure that would allocate funds to help address these systemic issues. With the straight-to-the-point hashtag #ThisIsOurReality, the conversation was soon trending. The ballot measure went on to pass with a 70 percent vote.

Of course, for large public agencies being this candid may seem easier said than done. What to focus on in the short term? Advocate for more flexible social media policies, and always try to be as honest as possible when problems arise. No one wants to feel placated or patronized when there’s a power outage or a train delay. They just want to understand what’s going on, and when they can expect the problem to be fixed.

Be Both

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission combines cultural relevancy and honesty, throws in a bit of obscure meme-inspired design language, and takes to the Twittersphere to keep people safe in a world full of danger. It turns on its head the idea that serious issues should always be communicated in a serious manner, using humor to highlight potentially deadly consequences. As a result, its social media presence shows real personality and is extremely relatable.

Via its social channels, the USCPSC doesn’t feel like a distant entity, but rather the bureaucratic embodiment of a witty Reddit enthusiast trying to show you how not to blow your head off lighting fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

Integrating a bit of wit into communications won’t necessarily be the answer for every agency. But the USCPSC offers a strong case study for how government work can be made more effective by making it more accessible — and that’s the key takeaway, here. It may take some trial and error, but public agencies need to figure out how to use communications not just to broadcast, but to connect and build trust with their different constituents.


This post was written by Dylan Stiga with thinking contributed by Brendan Crain. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.