My career started with both communication and government. At the age of 25, I had a completely different idea about my job, and I had utterly no idea about how challenging communicating on behalf of the government would be. I began at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a time when ex-communist countries across Central and Eastern Europe were opening talks about expanding the European Union (EU), and discussions about joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were also becoming serious.
Even though the EU accession process was new to all of us shifting from the non-democratic model, it was still only a technocratic exercise, where national governments followed the guidelines and made their own political decisions about how far they wanted to integrate with the Union. Politically difficult but technically learnable.
The more interesting challenge came as all these ex-communist countries realised the propaganda of old regimes diminished their ability to communicate with citizens successfully. Further complicating matters, the generation who were supposed to be leading this new communication strategy had never experienced such a thing. And even worse – the countries involved in the accession had to adopt an institution of the referendum – a new democratic system, foreign to the public and need an entirely new communication method from the government.
Obviously, all of this has happened, all the countries voted ‘yes’ in the EU referendums and their political consensus also agreed to join NATO. Clearly, some work has been done. But many lessons have been learned from these critically important communication efforts.
The way governments communicate is inherently different to the private sector – there is always a far bigger and more colourful range of stakeholders involved, achieving consensus around the message takes longer, political aspirations have to acknowledge the common interests and a poorly communicated message can alter the course of history or change a country’s trajectory. Governments should educate their constituents; they need to provide citizens with credible sources to support their arguments and formulate messages clearly and transparently. They need to be able to create content that is understood by the broader public, while also speaking to those with expertise in that area.
When asked who their target audience is, governments often say “everyone” – this is hated by most PR experts, by the way. Of course, one tends to target significant opponents or specific groups, influencers and decision-makers who need to be informed, but in general, every citizen should be able to understand any government message and any decision making logic easily. Also, good governmental communication should differ from political debate. The public sector is there to inform the public about various initiatives, goals, changes, projects and strategies. They should be creating awareness and making people involved in the political discourse, or ideally genuinely interested in politics.
Returning to the start of my career, as Central and Eastern European countries were debating joining the EU or NATO, a few mistakes were made by all of us. We didn’t educate people enough; we didn’t follow up enough once the votes were cast, instead of creating engaging content we used formal phrases and technical arguments. We underestimated the level of a general understanding of the reasons for joining – for being “in” and not “out”. We took the people’s “yes” for granted, and the real values of European integration remained unexplained. Even today, we can feel the consequences.
These failings were not only seen in the Czech Republic and other European nations. Countries like the UK forgot to keep talking to new generations of its citizens about the most important reasons to be part of the European family and then the Brexit vote was cast. Ireland and the Netherlands were not able to explain the reasons for deeper integration either. And, without the government hand-feeding reasons to stay to them, citizens weren’t curious enough to dig deeper and uncover the facts to help them make up their minds, one way or another. One of the key factors in all of these failings remains to underestimate the importance of content communication, insights and measurement.
A lot has changed as the digital era evolved and social media came to the fore. Firstly, governments became not only content publishers, but also direct audiences. The citizens themselves started to publish content, and the government was required to listen and react. Today, we do not monitor only traditional media, but we also watch and evaluate the citizen voices shared across Facebook, Twitter and the like. The amount of time we spend creating and publishing content now equals the amount of time we spend listening and responding to our audience. Never has this equation been so equal.
Secondly, one of the most influential ways to spread information is via social media sharing. For governments, the sharing of information in this manner is a challenge, as people add their own comments and views while forwarding the message. Whenever governments decide to become active on social media, there is a risk of losing purpose, mixing the message or failing the objective.
Thirdly, social media sees measurement and insights becoming increasingly important as governments receive feedback quickly and adapt their communication strategy as required.
At the time of the EU enlargement in 2004, social media was just learning how to walk. Governments had very limited interaction with the public; mostly it was a one-way stream of information. Today social is a runner, sprinter, marathon enthusiast who needs to be considered seriously. Not only because it is hard to control a message when it is released on a platform with endless voices able to take the microphone and add their thoughts, but especially because via social media governments can gain greater insights from their citizens than ever before. Well managed social media is a golden opportunity.
Governments today have many different tools with which to communicate effectively. One key piece of advice for them though; you are not the audience, the public is. Often governments fall into the trap of creating content for themselves, rather than their voting citizens. The reality of the glasshouse effect can see much misunderstanding and a lack of interest from the public.
If there were to be referendums again in Eastern and Central Europe regarding EU integration, I am afraid we would be facing an even tougher challenge. The need for a strong, trusted, persuasive and popular leader among the political elite is great– and many communication strategies fail without one. However, no matter how great the leadership or how fool-proof the strategy is, if the message (i.e. content) is weak it’s likely to fail. Remember, CONTENT IS KING no matter how you share it.