Moving from reactive to proactive communications

When a policy or program is launched, good communications are vital to ensure the audience hears, understands and engages with it. Despite its importance,  internal government communication teams are often running to catch up. Brought in at the end of the policy or program processes, and tasked with creating a few ad hoc assets, content can end up being created for content’s sake, or invested in without any real measurement and evaluation to assess its contribution to agency objectives.

How can you take content from a last-minute work item to a strategic resource that is planned and invested in ahead of time? Below are some insights uncovered by our CEO, David Pembroke, in conversation with Robert Rose, a founder of the global content marketing movement and co-founder of the Content Marketing Institute. An advisor to top Fortune 100 companies including Ernst & Young, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Thomson Reuters, Robert is a seasoned communication professional currently based in the US.

Producing content consistently at scale

 One challenge we often see is creating a system and supporting a culture that enables content to be produced and released regularly, so citizens can receive relevant information in a timely manner. This often comes down to issues of scalability and effectiveness, as Robert explains:

“[S]o many businesses and non-profits and government organisations are simply scaling [content production processes] by doing one of two things. They’re either piling more and more content onto the pile by adding freelancers or by having people write shorter amounts of content or trying to short-circuit it in some way, or they’re just throwing more people at it. What they’re finding is, is that scalability and effectiveness are two very difficult balances to strike.

“So the real theme and challenge that we see these days is, ‘How do I smartly scale in a world where I have to raise my noise versus signal level to a point where I’m differentiating my experiences to deliver that value…but do so at a scale that actually meets the requirements of my operation?’ That’s a really hard thing to do these days.”

Moving from reactive to proactive communications

Where do you start? Surprisingly, not with tools or assets. Governance models are key to govern any successful communication product. In many government organisations, Robert explains:

“Content is seen as an alternative form of marketing and communications. So that means what we’ve done mentally, if not even literally, is we’ve replaced the brochure, replaced the press release, replaced the catalogue, replaced the website with what we’re calling content. So we become an asset producing machine, and we just produce and produce and produce more assets and assets and assets and assets. Ultimately, at the end of a quarter or the end of the year, we end up with this giant pile of assets that aren’t connected in any thematic way and don’t really have much to do with one another. But because they were supported by quote-unquote marketing or communications campaigns, they sort of lived and died by how well we promoted them.

“Those that are creating teams and governance processes that look at content as a product, in other words, creating these owned media experiences, whether you call them a resource centre or a website or a magazine or a hub or whatever it is, [the key is they are] looking at those [products as] thematically connected and strategically managed products of content as a means of drawing and building an audience.

In that way, it’s a really subtle but important shift because what then happens is that it transforms the content team [away] from a reactive group… reacting to demands from the rest of the organization [like] ‘I need more of this and I need more of that and I need more of that,’ [instead becoming] a strategic publishing or media organization where they’re saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to produce.”

When to start talking about strategic communications with your executives (and what to say)

Moving away from communicating for communication’s sake is enabled by a clear governance structure based on a detailed understanding of the objectives of the department or agency, and then outlining how a program of communication work will support them. David Pembroke notes,

“When an organisation… [has] got their corporate plan which has identified the objectives of that particular organization over a particular period of time… that’s the time that you need the content team to be engaged, with the support of the senior executive, so they can then go out and understand the business lines and what needs to be done in the various business lines, in order to achieve those business objectives.”

This strategic approach can be a new way of thinking about communications for many organisations. How do you demonstrate the value add of this approach to your executives? Robert shares his insights:

“I said this to a CFO the other day. He was saying, ‘We don’t get it. I don’t really understand this whole content thing. Tell me why it’s important, and tell me why I should have a strategy.’ I said, ‘Look, are you producing more or less content these days?’ He said, ‘Well, of course, we’re producing more.’ I said, ‘Right.’ I said, ‘So that’s a cost.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Okay.’

“So the [content] you produce…is a real cost. I said, ‘Doesn’t it make sense, even if the only benefit is to get your arms around the cost and maintain that cost, doesn’t it make sense to put a strategy around it?’ He said, ‘Well, yes. Okay, I get that.’ I said, ‘Great.’ Now, we’re agreed that you need a strategy. Now, we’ve only disagreed, maybe, on how many more benefits. So if we’re going to get our arms around the cost, we should have the content team be involved early on as the ideas are being formulated so that we can develop even just a better bill of materials around all of the assets that are going to get created at the back end of this, so that we’re not duplicating content, so they’re not recreating the wheel each time, so that we’re not wasting channels and wasting and copying and pasting and managing things in an inefficient way. That gets our heads around the cost…All of those things basically say, ‘Shouldn’t content practitioners in the content team be invited to the creation process earlier, rather than just making it pretty and distributing it out?’ Because at that point, all they’re doing is making lots of little things. It’s just easier. It’s just easier and better from both a cost and maybe, depending on your talent, the creative, strategic side, to do it early on.

“If you present it that way, most leaders in business and…the government space that I’ve seen can sort of nod their head and go, ‘Okay, now it’s just a question of who and how and when we put those people in the room together.’ Because now, all of a sudden, it feels like we’ve made more process and bureaucracy, when in fact, what we find is the exact opposite. By including those content teams earlier and putting that governance and that process in, we find the number of content meetings actually goes down, the number of agencies goes down, the number of iterations and duplications go down. It actually reduces the overages, instead of increasing them.”

These conversations can be daunting at first, but done well, yield real benefits in the long term for your audience and content production teams serving them.

To hear more insights from this conversation, listen to the interview on GovComms: a podcast for government communicators everywhere.

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