Opening remarks to The Case for Content

Case for Content introduction

As part of the Australian Federal Government’s Innovation month, contentgroup held the ‘The Case for Content’ event last Friday (July 22), at the College of Business and Economics at the Australian National University.

The purpose of the event was to promote and discuss the practice of content marketing in government and the public sector. The event featured leading government communicators Hank Jongen, Kim Ulrick and Trish Johnston.

This is an edited version of David Pembroke’s introductory remarks.

Welcome to The Case for Content, my name is David Pembroke and thanks for joining me.

We named this event ‘The Case for Content’ however I had considered an alternative, ‘Welcome to the revolution’, but I thought arguing for the afternoon off to attend a revolutionary uprising might not have gone down too well with your bosses.

But in my view we are in a revolution, particularly as it relates to the technology and tools that we now use every day to do our jobs.

And when I say it is ‘we’, I don’t just mean government communicators.

Technology has changed the way the world communicates and it’s having a direct and substantial impact on every area of the operation of government be it policy development, regulation, programme or service delivery.

Effective communication with citizens and stakeholders is no longer the responsibility of the communication area. It’s a job for everyone.

The stunning and transformational reality is that technology has democratised the factors of media production and distribution.

We all now have the technical capability to be our own ‘media company’ on behalf of the departments and agencies whose stories we are seeking to tell.

We no longer have to buy ink in 44 gallon drums, we don’t need to own transmission towers, we don’t need printing presses or distribution trucks to create and distribute content that will help us to get to know and build loyal and engaged audiences over time.

The era of the media monopoly is over and that capability is now in your hands.

The challenge and the opportunity is how we use this gift as a way to build understanding and create value for citizens and stakeholders.

I would argue that in the past, communication, by and large, has not been a major priority for government. We as government communicators have singularly failed in our efforts to establish the value of what we do and our credentials as creators of strategic value. We have been seen as an ‘end of the line’ service delivered once the hard work of policy, programme or regulation design has ended. Now that’s as much our fault as anyone else because we have not effectively described nor explained the value we create. We have not earned a seat at the big table.

I also believe that in terms of communication, government shares the behavioural characteristics of a monopolist and information is often delivered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. People are compelled to engage with us to understand the policy, programme, service or regulation so we leave it up to them to do their best to find and then understand information that is often poorly explained and largely impenetrable.

But this reality is changing. And it’s changing fast.

In the age where advice to government is increasingly ‘contestable’ and most citizens and stakeholders carry around super computers in their pockets (which gives them not only access to the world’s information but a highly effective megaphone), it is critical for us to be more understanding of the needs of our audience.

Citizens have also been socialised by the high quality ‘customer centric’ experiences delivered by the private sector brands and now expect the same sort of service and engagement ‘experience’ from government.

As far as our political leaders are concerned, the priority and importance of clear and effective communication between government and citizens is obvious.

Here is a quote from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from December of last year.

“Arguably the first challenge is to get the message out, watchfully monitoring and carefully explaining that the emerging challenges posed by globalisation, convergence and rapid technological change are all forces that are not going away.”

And another.

“Taking decisions that may not be popular but will be accepted because the public understands why they have been taken.”

And another.

“Leaders must be decision makers, but they must be, above all else explainers, advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and the Government cannot solve every problem.”

Now I appreciate that the role of public servants is not to be advocates for policy, but our role is most definitely to help ‘explain’ policy, programmes and regulation.

It’s fair to say that while this transformational capability is now in our hands, we are only at the very beginning of our understanding of how to make the most of it and how to use it effectively to build trust and confidence through content.

Here is a quote from the Federal Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens from his end of year interview last year with the Australian Financial Review:

“There is a need for a serious conversation with the electorate about the future. Not to get into slogans and name calling. There is a need for nuances to be understood. Have we built a platform for this public understanding over the last ten years? No. The legacy is that when you want people to understand, there is no way of doing it.”

Now when the Governor talks about a platform, in my view, he is not talking about a single destination where we would talk about issues.

He is talking about the thousands of places where government and citizens and stakeholders interact.

The places where you on a daily basis are trying to create meaning and understanding with citizens and stakeholders.

These places are where you are working every day.

It’s your mission.

Now this failure is not unique to Australia.

Look no further than Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Brexit and our most recent Federal election as examples of where a lack of effective government communication and engagement has contributed to a lack trust and confidence not only in government but the broader political system.

This was described in a 7.30 Report media story with latest cabinet minister Senator Matt Canavan explaining his take on how to repair this lack of trust. (Watch from 2:56.)

In my experience there are many things that build trust, but effective communication is right at the top of the list. Trust is built over time. You build trust by doing what you say you are going to do. You build trust by standing in the shoes of the citizens and stakeholders we all seek to serve and use that perspective to create meaning for them through content.

In the distracted, hyper busy and attention deficient world in which we all live and work, it takes time to earn the attention of citizens.

They have so many choices as to where to apply the scarce resource of their attention, we have to be communicating in a way that is valuable and meaningful.

The challenge for those of us whose responsibility it is to ‘explain’ government policy, programmes, services and regulations to citizens and stakeholders, is to communicate respectfully through multiple online and offline channels.

My argument is that technology has given us the gift to be our own media company for our service, policy, programme or regulation where we can now go direct to these audiences with our story.

But to do it reliably and effectively we need a process and that process is content marketing.

Content marketing is a measureable, strategic and repeatable business process that relies on the curation, creation and distribution of useful relevant content. The purpose is to engage and inform specific audiences in order to achieve a desired citizen and or stakeholder action. It is a process that over time can play a role in restoring trust.

If we take on the challenge of looking at issues through the eyes of the citizen or stakeholder, as the Digital Transformation Office is urging us all to do in relation to the design and delivery of government services, the way we tell our stories will change and the way we distribute those stories will change.

I’m delighted that so many of you have turned up today as part of this Innovation month event. It’s really very encouraging that so many of you are interested to know more. It is a fundamental shift in the way we go about our business and in my view, content marketing, will be the process we use to deliver value to the community into the future.

No longer limited to media and advertising channels to tell our story, we can spread our wings and deliver on our mission to work every day to help strengthen communities and improve the well-being of citizens.

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