New good practice guidelines for statistical offices have been published by UNECE’s body of experts dedicated to modernizing official statistics. The role of brand management, marketing and crisis communications for Statistical Organisations examines the importance of reputation for producers of official statistics, and offers guidance to help them navigate through a range of possible crisis scenarios while maintaining the public trust upon which official statistics depend.
A good reputation is something for which all industries, businesses and public service providers strive. Whether they are selling shoes or running hospitals, they rely on being known, liked and trusted.
But a good reputation is uniquely important for official statistics as compared to producers and providers of other kinds of goods and services. Why? Because statistics are only worth having if they are known about, used and believed. Without good brand management and marketing, official statistics may be ignored or, worse, actively disbelieved, so that they don’t fulfil their basic function of informing society.
Not only this; if a producer of statistics does not have a strong reputation then the statistics themselves are less likely to be of high quality. If the public—the people who actually provide the data from which statistics are made—don’t see the point in cooperating to provide their data, the results will be poor. If you haven’t heard of the national statistical office in your country, don’t know what they do and why their statistics are worthwhile, or don’t trust them to use your data correctly and ethically, what incentive do you have to complete their surveys or invest your time giving accurate responses to the census?
For these reasons, national statistical offices (NSO) and other offices that provide official statistics are increasingly recognizing that marketing and brand management are not just ‘nice to have’ but core features of what they do. As the new UNECE guidance states, “while the foundation of statistical organisations may be high-quality, relevant statistics, brand and reputation is how the outside world perceives them and makes decisions about their value and relevance.”
With this in mind, a group of experts under UNECE’s High Level Group for the Modernisation of Official Statistics developed this new set of guidelines, tools and strategies for developing a brand, building awareness and trust in the brand, and the ongoing management of brand and reputation including through crisis situations. The guidelines are designed to help NSOs design an integrated approach that includes identifying and understanding their audience; promotional, educational and outreach activities; social media and digital marketing strategies; and taking the lead in highlighting and tackling disinformation.
All organizations face the possibility of a crisis that could threaten their reputation. Having a robust crisis communication strategy is key to being able to respond quickly to such threats, minimizing their negative impacts and ideally turning them around into positive situations. For an NSO, such threats could include a major error in published data; a malicious or accidental data breach that compromises the confidentiality of personal information; a technological failure such as the website for an online census crashing on census day; and massive changes in the demand for data due to an external event, such as the Covid-19 pandemic or a humanitarian incident.
The new guidance complements existing UNECE tools such as the UNECE Strategic Communications Framework, which offers advice on managing communications during a time of crisis. While a central recommendation is that “it is generally best to avoid operating in crisis mode”, the guidance recognizes that sometimes it is unavoidable. During the pandemic-related lockdowns in many countries, for instance, NSOs could not simply close their doors and wait it out; their products were required more than ever. The value of continuous brand management was then thrown into sharp relief. Where NSOs had already established a well-known brand that was associated with quality, professionalism and transparency, the ‘credit’ built up was able to support them through the peak crisis period. Those NSOs which most successfully maintained and even enhanced their reputations during this time were the ones which communicated effectively with data users, were quick to respond with new products and datasets, and were transparent about the limitations of what they could make available.
A story of statistics
Reputation, the new guidance tells us, is built upon public perceptions about the organization and its actions; the degree of alignment between what was promised and what was delivered; and the ‘story’ that people tell about the organization—a story that the organization itself tries to shape, but which ultimately is told by others.
An example of how an NSO can influence this ‘story’ can be found in the practice of Italy whose experience forms part of a set of case studies complementing the new publication, from the statistical offices of Canada, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Poland and Portugal as well as Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Union).
In Italy a network of more than 40 ‘ambassadors’ from both within and outside of the NSO serve to amplify ISTAT’s core messages through social media advocacy. Employees and other experts put a human face on the values of the institute, highlighting specific research findings, datasets or other elements of ISTAT’s work through their own personal social media accounts. This not only increases the reach of the NSO’s social media presence, but contributes to a story of a human-centred brand built from recognizable statistical experts.