We don’t campaign with advertising, but with content

27 June 2023

The Police and the CBS (Central Statistical Office). Two household names in the Netherlands. They’re established brands. How do you manage them? Mirjam Otten and Mike Ackermans on brand thinking in the public sector.


Mirjam Otten, originally a theologian, accidentally ended up in communication. Her ambitions quickly lead her to the communication profession. She successfully worked for the government, at the Municipality of Amsterdam and now for five years ‘at the sharp edge’, as she calls it, for the police.  

Mike Ackermans will start as the managing director at the Omroep Zeeland (public broadcaster) in August, in a province he only knows as a tourist. As a journalist by profession, he has logged quite a few years at the CBS. Before coming to the CBS, he worked as a journalist for a quarter of a century. In national media, magazines and radio. As a member of the executive board of the CBS, he is responsible for the dissemination of statistics and news coverage based on those statistics. 

In the second episode of Public Brands, a collaboration between Adformatie and iO to host professional discussions about brands in the public domain, Otten and Ackermans engage in a conversation about brands, competences, the limitations and the changes in public communication. 

Does the term "brand" come up in your team meetings? 

Mirjam Otten (MO): ‘I am close to the police management and we mainly talk about content, but as director of communications, my colleagues and I manage joint communication within the police. Externally and internally, trust is always central, but the word 'brand' is also used there, especially in relation to house style, recruitment and branding.  

We are now also working on our first employer branding campaign. So it doesn't happen that often in my daily life, but we are certainly working on it as part of our broader communication approach, and it is an extension of reputation management and trust for us.' 

Mike Ackermans (MA): 'Certainly. We also use the term, in several places. Our main task is to disseminate and communicate statistics, our product, and the stories that statistics tell about the Netherlands.  

We’ve also identified a number of sub-areas in the area of communication: corporate communication about the CBS itself, labour market communication, and communications to the institutions and to the people who supply data. This is required by law, as a Dutch legal entity you must provide data to the CBS with which we can compile statistics. We ask private individuals to participate on a voluntary basis. This communication is very important, and sometimes also causes friction. There are people who do not want to provide data or participate in surveys. In that context, the concept of brand is important.  

Our main task is the dissemination of statistics and we are an atypical organisation in that: we are not just a public organisation, we are also partly a medium or a news organisation. We are also a partner of news organisations. For us, the media is the intermediary to the public. We have a similar task. And the CBS brand is also very important there. Brand and especially brand identity is therefore a policy aspect for our communication department.' 

'CBS is a brand and a news medium'

Mike Ackermans

Do you also conduct research into how the brand is performing? How is 'the brand' CBS and 'the brand' Police viewed?

MO: Yes. We conduct permanent research into internal and external trust in the police. But at a large organisation like the police, house style is also very important. We are just making adjustments there, when it comes to colour, online expressions, campaign style. 

But also when it comes to buildings and uniforms, for example: we are now working on a practical adaptation of the M.E. (Mobile Units) uniform that will look different. All of this is being fully researched and tested. We actually do very little without research, I would say.' 

MA: ‘We have never actually done that structurally before. We did participate in surveys into brand perception on the labour market, such as those conducted by Intermediair, and we have our own survey of our communication in public information, with users of our information.  

But structurally, we only recently started: at the end of last year, Motivaction completed a major image study, a brand identity study. It’s revealed some very interesting findings. For example, we have a higher rating than many other public organisations. The general public gives us a 7.2, and specific target groups such as data suppliers or scientists gave us an 8.  

We are also in the news a lot. There are days when between 5 and 10 million Dutch people come into contact with our statistics. So we’re aware of our reputation. But now we test this regularly to see if there are any points that demand our attention. This is a baseline measurement and in two years we will be able to see how things are developing.' 

How do you view communication from other public organisations? Do you see something there that you would like to have? 

MO: 'I think that at the police we don't look at it that way and aren't looking for it. We naturally have our motto 'vigilant and at your service', and for us it is much more about the nature of the work, and about reputation and trust. We are a huge organisation, we employ about 70,000 people and they are incredibly enterprising and communicative.  

The question is how do you maintain consistency and recognisability and thus reliability in all communications, that takes more of our focus than looking at others with envy.' 

What do you see as your organisation’s strongest brand assets? 

MA: “These include our people who, as experts in the public debate, spread our message. We made a very conscious start on this when setting up our News Reporting division. We do not use the term 'brand asset', but we have strongly focused on those experts who will become the face of the organisation and also the brand image.  

We have a number of well-known spokespeople, such as Peter Hein van Mulligen, our chief economist. We have 'worked very hard on Peter-Hein' to position him, as a 'brand asset'. We used branding techniques and coaching to achieve that.  

This also applies to other spokespersons, such as chief sociologist Tanja Traag. She is less well known but she is also very good. We coach on appearance, but also to get the core values of CBS into their brand image. The personality must also radiate those core values: reliable, independent, and neutral, which is very important to CBS.  

Peter-Hein has more or less become a famous Dutch man. We knew that would happen. For example, he also participated in De Slimste Mens (Dutch television quiz show). Of course we didn’t expect him to win it. That certainly also helped to position him as the undisputed expert of the Netherlands in the economic field. 

MO: ‘At the police, we are widening our scope. Working with recognisable faces on subjects works really well. But we want to get rid of the 'Klaas Wilting effect' where one person speaks about everything.' That is why we now have more than a hundred figureheads who are supported in their work with solid training and guidance. 

MA: 'Yes, the Klaas Wilting effect, I certainly understand that, of course we don't want to be solely dependent on Peter-Hein. So that's why we now have six spokespersons.'

'We want to get rid of the Klaas Wilting effect'

Mirjam Otten

Does it help to invest in creating a buffer in your reputation by investing in campaigns?

MO: No, we don't do that. We have a lot of content on specific topics, and we have major themes that we invest in over an extended period of time, such as the police’s use of force. We pay constant attention to that, but I don't call it a campaign.  

We do not campaign with advertising, but by creating content. We involve colleagues and citizens in this, and sometimes well-known Dutch people. For example, “put yourself in the shoes of a cop”. Those are forms of generating attention, but I don't know if you should call that a campaign.  

We do see it as a permanent task to be transparent and to provide insight into what police work entails. This also works on imaging. For example, we participate in many TV productions. I couldn’t believe when I got to the police and saw the amount. This is of course all carefully considered and coordinated with the Public Prosecution Service. The appreciation is also very high and the interesting thing is: it is also very well appreciated internally. External visibility is very important for internal sentiment.” 

Are there branded campaigns from the commercial sector that you admire? 

MO: 'Personally, I contributed to the Amsterdam branding with IAMsterdam, which was quite successful. I also find it interesting how a brand like Nivea can be so visible for so long. That's in smell, the colour, the font. Very recognisable, very smart. Fascinating. But as far as I'm concerned, they should be more sustainable.' 

MA: 'I look at brand campaigns with a critical eye, perhaps because I am a journalist by trade and work for a non-profit public organisation. But I think the value of brand campaigns is often overstated. For global brands it is apparently the most important thing to do, but is it really that effective? In any case, they don't think so at Apple.  

Especially if your brand is already under pressure in the public debate and has even been damaged. Like with the IRS now. Any brand association that is not about that reputational damage, "the problem" is seen as hypocrisy and only adds fuel to the fire. Take Shell, which has no public trust in today's most important debates on climate change. So they are launching another brand campaign in the Netherlands about how good the coffee is at the petrol stations. I find that approach very naive and incomprehensible.  

Shell Netherlands has sometimes visited CBS because they found our powerful presence in the public domain interesting. How can we do that? They asked. I advised them not to communicate about the organisation, the brand or their own product. Don't talk about yourself, talk about about society, focus on what you know, and about the problem you are in the middle of. Something that really touches people. Then you will at least be heard again.  

What big commercial brands try to achieve with their gigantic marketing budgets is not feasible for public organisations anyway, nor is it the goal; that certainly applies to the CBS.' 

MO: ‘No, that also applies to us. We don't want that either.' 

Is it necessary to add extra associations to strengthen your buffer in your reputation? 

MA: “Commercial brands can do that because their investments in it are almost unlimited. Hardly anyone can imitate that.” 

MO: 'The following applies to the police: we are large and well-known, and we are in people's primal brains, so we don't need campaigns for that. But showing what we do and who we want to be is an ongoing task. Things also go wrong in a large organisation, we are constantly under a magnifying glass, and sometimes we get caught up in the political wind.  

The question then is whether there is an impact on trust in the police, on our reputation. But you see that we are so large and visible in so many different ways and are connected to citizens, that those effects are often less than we think. But of course maintaining trust is crucial, because that is our legitimacy.” 

MA: 'For the CBS, we are automatically used and mentioned in the public debate by the media and politicians. We are a relatively small organisation, much smaller than the police, but we still manage to be present every day. That is branding that we do not have to do anything for except ensure that the figures are correct and that we constantly make our content available. We work on that all day long.”  

What are the main drivers/influencers for your reputation score? 

MO: ‘We do a lot of reputation research. The National Police started out with the Van Riel method and we now measure and publish the results every year.  

We work externally with “Three Building Blocks of Trust”. These are Proximity, the police must be close by, Justice, the police must treat everyone equally, and Effectiveness, we must catch criminals, make the world a safer place. Those are our three external communication focal points and we try to organise ours that way. These are major umbrella themes, but at the core this touches on the feeling people have with the police.' 

MA: ‘We do so-called interventions for each target group. General public, data user, scientists, policy makers. We want to find out about all of them: what drives those people to use CBS, what do they think of us and what do they need from us?  

We also have a team that is only concerned with user interaction and who checks how everything we put out there is perceived by users. We use their feedback to improve our products.  

In general, we try to increase knowledge about Statistics in the Netherlands, our methods and our public task. The Motivaction survey has taught us that the better people know the CBS, the more positive their opinion of us becomes.' 

Do you feel that new competencies have been needed in your team to do what you need to do? 

MO: 'Yes, we see both developments that indicate specialisation and trends that indicate the need for generalists.  

On the one hand, the world I'm in, the management within the Police Netherlands has become more generalist. Spokespersons are increasingly becoming broad strategic advisors and all-round. But we also have webcare specialists and people who understand research.  

We have a large, executive Communications department in Rotterdam and there are certainly specialists there. I also think that we can take more specialisms from the market and train and shape our own people to what is needed.' 

Are you looking for T-shaped professionals? 

MO: 'We had a large editorial team at the police that took up the entire social media side in a short time. That means creating content in a different way and not everyone can do that. Then you say goodbye to people and bring in new people. And if necessary, we obtain expertise from the market. That can also give the organisation good energy.  

We started storytelling a few years ago, making the story of the police an inspiring foundation in many communication initiatives. We do this with large agencies. You can't do all that yourself. We have a lot of communication people at the police, but in percentage terms it’s actually very few.  

I am also in favour of working with outside knowledge and expertise. That brings an external view and gives the organisation new energy.' 

MA: “At the moment we are working on a strategic personnel plan for the Communication & News division and we see that our people do indeed need new knowledge and skills.  

We have a number of strategic communications advisors for corporate communications, and we have more people for content creation. There we see a growing need for many new positions such as interaction specialist, webmaster, web owner, information specialist, designer, visualisation specialist, content editor. We see that employees have to 'stack' more and more competencies, but the need for specialists will remain. 

MO: ‘Our specialists are mainly in the Communication department. We have recently been more concerned with internal communication, so you actually need 'listening specialists'. We are not yet recruiting them, but that is a new branch for us. Internal communication is still very broadcast-driven, and we think that needs to be overhauled. 

When recruiting for those skillsets, do you notice that you get people who have no history in the public sector? 

MA: 'Yes, at the CBS we put a lot of effort into video production as part of the visualisation of the content, and we didn't find those people in the government. We have our own studio and even make live TV, sometimes broadcast directly from broadcasters. Try to find a studio technician or director in the government. There are none.' 

MO: 'The same applies to us. We are also busy setting up studios throughout the country and then you are indeed looking for people from a different domain. But also in our own management, we have a colleague who comes from Google, someone from the NS, webcare and specialists from the business community.  

In any case, I think the search for more younger people and people with different backgrounds is a major point of attention for us. How do we bring in people in their twenties, more diversity, then you also look outside the group of people with government experience.' 

Last question: where do you get your inspiration from? 

MA: 'I am and will remain a media man, I consume all the media channels out there, from social to TV to online, streaming, podcasts. I get a lot of my inspiration from what's happening in the media. But I also look at what happens in comparable international organisations such as the IMF, Eurostat or the OECD. How do they bring their data and stories about it to life.' 

MO: ‘I get a lot of inspiration from our own organisation, from police work itself. I've been a police officer for five years now, and police officers are all pretty good communicators. It is said that the mouth is the police’s strongest weapon. So the capacity and quality to tell stories, to connect with people and to exude authority and protection are there in abundance and I find that inspiring.  

I am also a huge media glutton. I do not only follow the obvious news media, but also like to watch the wrong B-movies and RTL Boulevard. You have to make sure you get outside your own bubble, also on social media. Oh yes, I also sometimes browse through the Privé (weekly celebrity gossip magazine) at Albert Heijn.

Daan Goote
Daan Goote
Client Lead & Consultant behaviour and psychology

Daan Goote is a psychologist and consultant in the field of (public) communication and marketing. He applies knowledge and learnings from behavioural science. 'People are not as rational as they think' is by far the most important insight.

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