Hey government communicators… If we don’t change things, we’re doomed

Communicators, we have a problem. And most of it is our own doing.

While we spend hours, days, weeks and months crafting stories for our internal and external audiences, we have failed to sell our value to the people who matter most. Our bosses.

By and large, the economists and lawyers who populate the senior leadership positions of the public service don’t appreciate the value of strategic communication.

Of course there are notable exceptions, but communication in government and public sector organisations is still considered a late-stage service offering as opposed to a strategic tool that can solve their most difficult problems.

Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy and Mather (UK) attributes some of the failure to the vocabulary of marketing. On a recent episode of the Holmes Report podcast, he said that marketers don’t talk in a way that people understand which has left us to the “trivial, dealing in only appearance and perceptions.”

Sutherland argues the problem solving skills and practices of communicators/marketers can, and should, play a much greater role in helping organisations solve their biggest problems.

In a complex world that is neither rational nor logical, it is the communicator who can translate the needs of the audience to create the deeper understanding of the citizen that is needed in policy development and service delivery.

Sutherland went on to point out that by contrast, behavioural scientists have succeeded where communicators have failed.

So what to do?

The remedy starts with linking communication activity to strategic objectives.

We have to learn to demonstrate value.

Kim Moeller, a director with the Canberra based government consulting group, Synergy, says you have to show how your activity will make a difference.

“We find that leadership in the public service is happy to invest in a capability as long as they understand the return on investment. You [communicators] won’t move up the value chain until you can explain your value.”

We must learn to speak in the language of the senior executive. Study the language they use to describe their priorities and shape our responses to match.

Once we understand those two things, we have can shape our skills and offering in a way they appreciate. Grab time with them when you can. Read what they write. Listen to their speeches. Get on their level.

Next step is to find proof of success.

Most people are influenced by demonstrated success. So our challenge is to show how our recommended approaches have brought success in similar organisations. Find examples of where marketing /communication skills, tools and techniques have been used to solve complex problems.

A final piece of advice is to never sacrifice the human element of your solution. Rory Sutherland says the proxy for understanding in most modern business and government organisations is driven by the numerical financial models. But remember while facts may validate decisions, it is emotion that drives action.

Technology will continue to drive more and more change in our organisations and as a result effective communication will become an even more important driver of success. As a result our roles will shift from service providers to guides.

If we want this transition to ‘trusted adviser’ to happen sooner, we have to take some of our own advice and walk in the shoes of the people we seek to serve. See the world through their eyes and work out how we can use our increasingly valuable talents and skills to lighten their loads.

Let’s brainstorm. How do you, as a communicator, help your department or organisation? Tell us in the comments below.

David Pembroke

About David Pembroke

David Pembroke is the CEO and founder of contentgroup, a government and public sector content communications agency based in Canberra, Australia.

He has a commerce degree (marketing major) from one of Australia’s leading business schools (University of New South Wales) and worked in product management for the American multinational 3M. He changed careers to work in media where he spent a decade as a radio current affairs and sports reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

He was the communications director of the Australian Rugby Team when they won the Rugby World Cup in 1999 and is a member of the Australian Olympic media team.

contentgroup was founded in 1997 and offers consulting, content production, training and research services. David hosts InTransition, a weekly podcast which examines the practice of content communication in government and the public sector.

More posts by David Pembroke

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