Reputation is not just the responsibility of the communications department

4 juillet 2023

In episode 5 of the Public Brands series: Iris Reshef from the NS (Dutch railways) and Suzanne Bijkersma from the Social Insurance Bank (SVB) discuss brand and reputation thinking in the public sector.


Iris Reshef studied Communication Sciences and worked as an information officer for the Amsterdam mayors Job Cohen and Eberhard van der Laan for about 8 years. She’s been working at the Dutch railways for over 8 years as Director of Communications since 2020.

Suzanne Bijkersma studied Communication Sciences, specialising in change management, and has worked in a variety of sectors. She has worked for PWN, in disabled care, and taught at the university of applied sciences. For the last two years she’s been working at the SVB as Communications Manager. In her spare time she is an enthusiastic singer.

In this fifth episode of the Public Brands series by iO and Adformatie, Reshef and Bijkersma discuss brands, competences, the limitations of and the changes in public communication.

Does the term ‘brand’ ever come up in your team meetings?

Iris Reshef: Yes, daily. I believe that the brand of your organisation consists of a lot more than just your logo or corporate identity design. It’s really about the guiding principles; how you, as an organisation, act. So it also includes your tone of voice and culture. 

There are many departments that contribute to the brand in one way or another. The largest contributors are commerce, recruitment and communication. To give an example: I don’t think there is a company anywhere that’s not struggling with challenges on the labour market. And if anything demonstrates how important it is that your brand is in good shape, that’s it. 

Last week the survey on well-known employers was released. We (NS) have moved up four places. We had 50,000 applicants last year. That's huge. 50,000 people want to work for us. They do this because they think we are an interesting brand. It shows how important it is to think about what kind of company you are and what you want to emanate. 

Suzanne Bijkersma: I completely agree with Iris. Your brand is much more than your logo and corporate identity. It is your compass for everything you say, do and show. Our context has changed a lot. 

In recent years, the SVB has also realised that it gives you a head start if you make clear what you stand for and know how to shape it into a compelling story. Not only as a public service provider that is committed to the enforceability of laws and regulations but also the human dimension and as an employer. That people think: this moves me, I want to get out of bed for this and go the extra mile. 

Do you do research on how you are perceived? Brand research, reputation research?

Suzanne: Brand awareness has led us to work on this for the past two years. I would like to do sentiment research. I am exploring whether we could do this with other contractors. Acting more as a single government agency in this regard. What we have always done is customer satisfaction surveys. The SVB always scores very high in that area. This year an 8.2. 

Iris: You could jokingly say that every birthday is a sentiment survey for us. But seriously, we do a lot of research, into our media impact, customer research, campaign measurements. And a major reputation survey, because brand is of course closely related to reputation. Where a brand is more about your promise to the future, reputation is mainly about the sum of the behaviour you display. We measure that continuously. 

Our reputation is also one of our KPIs. The Board of Directors has agreed on a certain value that our reputation must meet, so that is also being managed. We also look at the most important drivers when it comes to reputation. We put a lot of energy into that. Our people also find it interesting to see how what they do contributes to the reputation of NS. 

I think our communication academy is one of the crown jewels of our department. This is how we give our colleagues insights into the communication profession. That's very practical. We provide in-company training. How do you tell a story? How do you write a clear and concise text? We also give master classes, for example on media logic, or a master class on how reputation works. Hundreds of colleagues participate in this every year. 

Reputation does not belong to the communications department. The reputation is determined by 20,000 NS employees and what they do every day. So it’s great to make people aware of that and it also helps. The greatest gains can be made by making colleagues aware of how they can make a difference. 

‘Since I started working for the NS, no birthday is the same’ 

How do you view communication from other public organisations? Or brands? Are you jealous of anything?

Iris: Not jealous, but even though it's already old, I still love the slogan of the tax authorities: 'we can't make it fun, but we can make it easier'. Things are now complicated, with the benefits scandal, but it was very strong. It sticks and says exactly what it’s about. 

What I also personally find interesting are brands that have become bigger than themselves. Ibiza is bigger than Spain and New York is actually bigger than America. That fascinates me. What I also think is cool, Zeeman now has a campaign with sweaters that says: does the maker of this sweater get paid properly? That shows guts and I really admire that. 

Suzanne: I think ‘Loekie de Leeuw’ (Loekie the Lion) from the STER is iconic. He somehow resonates, that cheeky little lion. That just gives us Dutch people a nice, warm feeling, I think. And what I actually want to mention, with a big wink, is the pay off of PWN: “Pure Water and Nature”. I came up with it myself as a 27-year-old, cheeky and stubborn starter. I am proud that it is still on the side of the building. 

What are your organisations known for, what are your brand assets?

Suzanne: Everyone knows us because we implement the AOW and child support. We also present the list of the most popular children's names every year. There is always a lot of attention paid to that. We are increasingly committed to linking this with our spokespersons to our brand. The most important thing for us here is that by working with intention, we also deliver what we promise to the people who count on us. So that people get what they deserve. That makes you a credible brand: fulfilling promises in contact with people. 

Iris: For me there are two big ones. I think we have one of the most famous logos in the Netherlands that hardly anyone can draw. That is really funny. We really have a very well-known logo that many Dutch people recognise. But if you ask to copy it, people get lost. In addition, of course, the colours, the yellow and blue of the trains. They are visible across the entire country every day. 

Are you, as a public organisation, in a more difficult playing field? Can you afford to spend less on branding, and do you have more responsibility?

Iris: I don't know if that is the case, but as a social company you do have a certain responsibility. We are from and for the entirety of the Netherlands and the whole of the Netherlands also works for NS. So I think it's good to have that in focus. At the same time you also have to put things into perspective. That is only good for you as a brand.

The example of Roger van Boxtel at the windmill is of course a huge wink and also funny. That didn't cost much at all. It was just a good idea from someone in the department and we asked an agency to produce it. I do believe that a little more level-headedness is expected of you as a public organisation, but that also fits very well with NS. NS is a typically Dutch company, so it also fits our image. 

Suzanne: Of course, we only campaign in the public interest. From our point of view, brand investments go beyond selling an extra jar of peanut butter or a pair of jeans. It is to make people think and to get them moving. Movement among politicians to simplify laws and regulations, among citizens to apply for what they are entitled to and among colleagues to go the extra mile for the security of our customers' livelihoods. 

How do you deal with negative messages?

Iris: Organisations always need to identify what’s happening in society to act accordingly. That is sometimes in the speed of responding and sometimes in doing the right thing at exactly the right time. At NS, the communications department is well positioned within the organisation. 

I’m on the Board of Directors, where decisions are made every week. I advise on that. It is my contribution to outline the opportunities and risks for every decision from a reputational point of view. As you should, if you take your reputation seriously as an organisation. You will not get enough out of your communication department if you don’t organise it properly. 

Suzanne: First of all, we naturally try to avoid negative messages by keeping our promises as much as possible. Additionally, we continue to build a strong reputation through proactive spokespersons. But you can't always avoid negative coverage. That’s not a bad thing at all. Every expression of dissatisfaction is another opportunity to improve your service. 

At the SVB we work based on the Intention, a method to focus on the human dimension. The aim of the methodology is that every employee should get a professional “stomach ache” if a law does not work as it should. Then, we make this a subject for discussion within the organisation, and that can lead to policy rules being made more citizen-friendly. Sometimes we also need the help of politicians in The Hague to simplify laws and regulations. We are in constant discussion about this. 

What are the main influencers of your reputation score?

Suzanne: The most important thing is that we do what we promise and show what we’ve done. And for us, that is primarily about timely and correct payment. We’re held accountable for this. It used to be simpler: 70% of the statutory minimum wage for unmarried AOW recipients and 50% of the statutory minimum wage for married AOW recipients.

Today, there are many more forms of life. For example, there are elderly people who consciously or unconsciously choose to live permanently separated, and some grandparents take grandchildren in because of the housing shortage. These situations can all have an effect on the amount of your state pension. It is sometimes difficult for people entitled to AOW to understand what their rights and obligations are. That is of course undesirable, so we discuss that in The Hague. 

What also contributes to our reputation score is that we recently started working with a newsroom. Here, communication consultants, spokespersons and public affairs consultants collaborate with colleagues who have daily conversations with the people we do our work for. This way we bring the outside in and distinguish ourselves as trusted advisors. Really great to see how they reinforce each other. 

Iris: I think it's important to first look at how our reputation is determined. We measure that very precisely. We know that most of our reputation is built on our products and services. Do the trains run on time, are they clean, do stations look good, how are things going with the public transport bicycle? We can invest a lot in great stories about how sustainable we are, but if the train is late, it's all for nothing. The behaviour you display, the decisions you make, that defines you. That is why it’s so essential that communication is close to the core of that decision-making. 

The second driver, we know from research, is our social impact. We are a social company and we take our responsibility seriously. We also do a lot of social things. Like conductors who provide information at school. And we show that in the partnerships we enter into. For example, we have a collaboration with Alzheimer Nederland in which we have recreated a railway cart with video screens behind the windows. It is located in nursing homes for people with dementia. So that they can also feel like they are out for a while. 

The third thing I see in all those reputation studies is that in all companies it becomes much more important how your moral compass is set. Are you good as an organisation? Are you doing the right thing? I see that this also determines the reputation of companies to an increasing extent. I think that the communication department is one of the parties within an organisation from which you can expect that awareness. How do we tune that social antenna? That’s also very practical. We have stations all over the country with workplaces where colleagues are located. I say to my people: please go work across the country. Just sit in all the different locations to experience what goes on there. At the head office, we really cannot imagine what concerns the average conductor in Groningen. 

“Many communication departments are one-sided" 

Do you feel that in recent years, new competencies have been needed in your team? Due to changes in the media landscape, professional development, etc. Do you see changes in the skills of the people who come to work in your teams?

Susan: Absolutely. Based on a brand-oriented vision of communication and based on the model of an external agency, we have set up a completely new communication team. In one of the previous interviews of this series, someone said: all those different roles, our job centre cannot handle that at all. And then I thought: you won't let that stop you, will you? 

I sometimes say, perhaps a bit irreverently, that many communication departments are rather one-sided. We must look broader, beyond the narrow communication scope and apply our expertise to the organisational, business administration playing field. This connects us with the rest of the organisation and increases our impact. 

What I am really very happy about is the diversity in our team. We have succeeded in attracting many professionals, people of different ages, backgrounds and areas of expertise from different sectors. We also have three labour programme participants and two people in work experience positions. This diversity pays off through the impact we create together and also contributes to a very good atmosphere. 

Iris: With us, they come from all over the Netherlands. We have spokespersons, PR managers, communication advisors, people who organise events, look for partnerships, content creation, socials and a video team. What is important to me is cultural diversity. 

NS is a very diverse company, but the higher you go, the whiter it becomes. I think it is essential for a company that takes its reputation seriously to promote diversity within the organisation. Because everyone has blind spots. If we all start working with people who look like us, then we all have the same blind spot. That is actually already apparent in the way we talk about recruitment and selection. 

We're talking about "click conversations." That sounds a bit like you want to be friends, because we click well. While that may not be what we're looking for at all. It’s also about different types of people. We don’t just have very flashy extroverts here, we also have people who are more thoughtful, or who are more into collaboration. 

Where do you get your inspiration from? And how do you use that in your work? 

Suzanne: I get inspiration from everything around me. The stories we share with each other through music, art, sports and social encounters. Within the company I mainly get my energy from people and what sets them in motion. You have to go out and meet people and get some hands-on experience. That’s where you get citizen contact. 

Outside the company, I find Professor of Transition Science Jan Rotmans very inspiring. You should look up 'The activist civil servant'. We also invited him as a speaker once and that does have impact. Also with people who disliked it a bit at first. I call it growing pains. Also fascinating and inspiring. 

Iris: I get inspiration from many different things. First, I just go into the company. We now have a project, prompted by the staff shortage, where office colleagues are working in the train. That's really cool and a perfect example of how to bring two worlds together. That inspires me. But also in other places. 

I once spoke to a GGD doctor who had to deal with bad news. I still think back to that and it was very helpful to me. Or recently I spoke with an architect about the gap that we sometimes experience in this society. He looked at it from an architect's perspective and said that nowadays we are no longer used to building things that span generations. You used to build cathedrals, that would keep you busy for generations. Thinking about what is happening in society like inspires me a lot. Sometimes the greatest inspiration can be found in unexpected places. 

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