The public has grown weary of corporate PR professionals in recent years, seeing them as nothing more than message spinners trying to cover up when things are bad and exaggerate when things are good. The situation in the federal government is not much different. Elected representatives are facing increased skepticism regarding campaign promises and policy-making that seems to favor the vocal minority—lobbyists and special interests, instead of the public at large.
Just as many companies have recognized that honest and transparent engagement with their stakeholders helps build customer loyalty and trust, many government agencies have realized they too can reach out and engage with their customers—the American public. They’re using blogs to interact with passengers and talk about airport security; they’re using Twitter to eliminate misinformation about health risks, and they’re even using open forums to solicit ideas for making government more open.
However, to many Americans, asking for participation in any of the Federal Government’s many and varied Open Government Initiatives is akin to asking to comment on a blog authored by their local used car salesman. If some recent polls are to be believed, the amount of trust we place in our government officials is unfortunately on par with lawyers, stockbrokers and car salesmen.
According to a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey, only 26% of Americans trust the federal government. And, in Gallup's annual Honesty and Ethics of Professions poll, a majority of Americans (55%) say the honesty and ethical standards of members of Congress are low or very low.
Getting the American people to participate in open government initiatives—whether by asking for input on a new policy, downloading government data or becoming a Facebook fan—isn’t going to happen until they trust that their government:
· Will use the data they collect in a way that will benefit the American public;
· Actually values what they have to say and isn’t just going through the motions to check a box;
· Will protect their data and will not misuse it.
The biggest problem isn’t that the public is disinterested or uneducated—it’s that the public has little faith that their government genuinely cares about their opinions, ideas and concerns. This isn’t a problem that can be solved with advertising or marketing alone. And it’s going to require more than public relations—it’s going to require relationships with the public.
Rebuilding this relationship with the public won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen via Presidential memo. It will happen the same way any good relationship is established—citizen by citizen, day by day and conversation by conversation. Just as our trust in our government has been eroded by years of broken promises, unnecessarily redacted documents, cover-ups and scandals, this trust can only be restored by providing top-notch customer service, hosting honest, candid conversations and, perhaps most importantly, listening to what the public has to say and caring about it. Isn’t that what our industry should be about anyway?
If we want the people to care about open government, we have to first show the people that we care about them.
Steve Radick is an associate and social media consultant at Booze Allen Hamilton. He’s also one of PR News’ 15 to Watch PR pros . Radick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.