It’s now more than six months since government communications were relaunched with a new coordinating structure – the Government Communication Centre – supported by a clear statement of intent – that everything we do as government communicators should help central government achieve its policy objectives.
Six months in feels like a good time to reflect, albeit subjectively, on how well we’re tackling the challenge we were set to:
- Deliver, not just procure
- Use digital by default
- Use owned and earned before paid-for media
- Work in partnership
- Ensure value for money through effective evaluation
- Adhere to propriety guidance
We all know that headcount is down considerably on 2010 but this has created both challenges and opportunities. The challenge is to continue to meet ever-increasing public expectations in a 24/7 media world with fewer resources and less agency support. But opportunities can be found in the old adage about necessity being the mother of invention. There are clear signs that departments are integrating communications activity faster than before and getting better at delivering their own on- and off-line campaign activity. And doing more hands-on activity should make government comms role more – not less – rewarding.
The work of the Government Digital Service – and some great use of social media by, for example, the Department for Education and Environment Agency – shows that the test of prioritising digital channels where appropriate is being grasped with relish. Whilst digital performance across the board remains uneven, it’s heading firmly in the right direction. You only need to look at the American election to see how powerful effective and targeted online activity can be. But even the most popular Twitter feed is followed by a very limited number of people: digital activity needs to be part of and not a replacement for integrated activity.
There are also promising signs around using owned and earned channels. There will always be a place for some above-the-line activity in our arsenal of interventions, but media relations continue to be strong and evidence from the first wave of Departmental communications capability reviews highlights just how impressive most government press offices – and officers – are.
Recognition is also growing that there are few areas of government activity where we can or should deliver on our own. And that both commercial and non-commercial partnerships continue to be sensible and appropriate ways of extending our reach. Real partnership working takes time and commitment and we’ll shortly be launching some guidance for public communicators on how best to achieve this.
Likewise, we’ll shortly be issuing fresh guidance on evaluation. There are some interesting discussions and work going on around how best to evaluate press office activity: for example, how do you put a value on ensuring a story falls on the spike and doesn’t become a front-page spread? Historic PR metrics around column inches and advertising worth are not an accurate reflection of success. Some departments – such as HMRC – have set up seriously impressive evaluation hubs to justify spend and demonstrate ROI and there is a genuine willingness to share best practice acrossWhitehalland beyond.
As for propriety – as ever it’s the red thread through everything we do. We’re working in an environment of increased electoral activity, surrounded as we are by local, devolved, national and European elections, elections for Police and Crime Commissioners and a forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. The commitment of colleagues to be objective and explanatory, and never biased or polemical, continues to impress.
As a kid I always felt that my school report comments – “must try harder”; “progress slow, effort minimal” – were one dimensional and slightly patronising, so I will resist the urge to put a grade or RAG rating on the last six months.
What I will say, however, is that we’re operating in a complex, fast-changing world and a climate where it’s imperative we continue to drive down costs and drive up effectiveness. That challenge hasn’t been met yet, but we seem to be heading firmly in the right direction. What do you think?Image used under Creative Commons from dingatx