Shifting unfavourable perceptions of public sector professionals

By Sue Parker

Thursday January 20, 2022

Here’s how to recalibrate for a better image. (Prostock-studio/Adobe)

The Australian public sector broadly has a reputation and image perception that can be addressed with resolve, humanity and courage in 2022. Trust across the sector broadly is not in the best of shape. However, the situation provides bona fide opportunities for recalibrating professional images and personal brands.

Survey says

Roy Morgan’s 2021 Image of Professions Survey found only 27% of Australians rate public servants as having high levels of trust and ethics. This is a sharp decline from 37% in 2017. But federal and state MPs fare even worse, sitting at only 7%, down from 16% in 2017. As this chart from Roy Morgan reveals, other sectors also face considerable image challenges.

The Governance Institute of Australia’s Ethics Index 2021 Report found only 57% of Australians believed the public service was ethical. While faring better than Roy Morgan’s findings, the gaps are tacit in this chart:

The newly released 2022 Edelmen Trust Barometer global report provides an interesting statistic on the importance of trust and perception.

It was found that 59% of global respondents had distrust as their default (tendency to distrust until evidence that something is trustworthy) vs 41% with trust as their default (tendency to trust until I see evidence that something is untrustworthy). Although a global survey, the findings are important for understanding the nuances of opinions.

Further, Edelman reported that Australians had a 52% trust in government broadly, down 9% from the previous year.

What trust looks like

The Governance Institute of Australia also surveyed the top elements people assigned to trust.

While not industry-specific, the results speak clearly to all sectors and professions.

The top three elements were:

  • Accountability
  • Transparency
  • Highly Ethical Leadership

These are crucial insights to integrate into and demonstrate in all communications.

How beliefs and perceptions originate

Beliefs and perceptions originate from several sources. Formed from direct experiences, relayed second-hand opinions and experiences, populist hearsay and media narratives, often they are a melange trussed up by conscious and/or unconscious biases. And in recent years, the level of mis-information and acerbic social media rhetoric has not done any industry or profession many favours, let alone the public sector. But are those opinions fair and logical? Often they are not, but perceptions are taken as reality and suppositions and biases must be challenged and reframed.

How to create a good reputation

Embracing your unique raison d’etre and taking control of your personal brand narrative is essential. What you don’t discuss and/or address is left to febrile imaginations that can run wild.

The recent story and positive feedback from Channel 7’s Rebecca Maddern and Mike Amor discussing (privately) their honest opinions of the Novak Djokovic saga is proof that people want to see greater truth from leaders. Trust is built when we know what people feel, versus the expected political rhetoric.

While I’m not advocating for the expletive style per se, I do advocate leaders sharing their honest opinions more frequently, albeit in an elegant and adroit fashion.

The following tips impact websites, LinkedIn, media and all other communication touchpoints:

  1. Address the elephant in the room and talk to the negative perceptions. Acknowledge the accusations faced and how you approach matters differently.
  2. Provide comfort and examples of how you or your department are unique in areas that have a lacklustre reputation.
  3. Communicate your values and what is meaningful to you and your field of expertise. Share stories and show rather than state with humanity.
  4. Build up a body of content, media appropriate. Share department and relevant professional insights and share your honest opinions with gravitas (as above).
  5. Be transparent in sharing best practices, processes and methods. By virtue, this will demonstrate differences and reframe perceptions from past negative experiences. 
  6. The Feel, Felt, Found tool is powerful for unpacking negativity (feel); sit alongside the other person with empathy and acknowledgement (felt); draw examples and ask questions to reframe the actual situation (found).
  7. Be visible, don’t hide — always display current photos and your career background, goals and purpose.

While calling out the elephant in the room is key, recognise that change is gradual but comes from courage and purpose. And each bit of that big elephant of distrust and push back builds a stronger reputation that will impact personally and broadly.

We all must step up with greater transparency and courage this year no matter the sector or profession.


Political polarisation slowed after a newspaper dropped national politics from its opinion pages 

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