Stressed Government Communicator

Nightmare on GovComms Street

When you next see someone who works in Government communications, give them a hug!

It’s been a rough period, and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

The communication genie is out of the bottle, and we’ve gone from the back to the front of the queue.

Everyone wants a blog, a podcast, a webinar, an animation, more social media posts or videos – oh so many videos!!

And while this gushing demand is ever-present, the skills and capability to deliver it are not. Qualified technical specialists and communication professionals are thin on the ground and the competition for their services is intense.  

Any talk of a ‘’new normal’’ is a mirage.

Technology and its impact on people’s behaviour and expectations have seen to that. The Boston Consulting Group describes our new context as a “multidimensional, evolving and overlapping disruption’’.  

And I couldn’t agree more!

So, let’s wind the clock back and trace the journey from relative stability to today’s frantic if somewhat controlled chaos.

Social media changed politics forever.

Every citizen and stakeholder can and does express opinions in real-time on multiple, ubiquitous digital platforms with huge local, regional, national and international reach. People of all ages, shapes, and sizes, have their heads bowed and fingers flashing across illuminated handheld screens.

Massive flows of digital information, education and entertainment have changed the way politicians think and political offices behave. Content to explain policy or announce a new program is a red hot priority for people always keen to demonstrate the value and impact of their work. The need for volume and speed is pronounced.

These changes have made life difficult for the government communication teams who are trying to keep up.  

Governments have traditionally (and still do in many cases) relied on the advertising/industrial complex to communicate and engage with citizens and stakeholders. The static process of market research (surveys and focus groups), insight, creative idea, media-buy and evaluation is antiquated. It is barely surviving the “whirling dervish” of online media as it rips through the diminishing hold on audiences and increasingly fragile business models of traditional media businesses.

To retain even a modest share of a citizen’s and stakeholder’s attention, the news media has become more absolute and strident. The perpetual sense of crisis infects the mindset of political offices, which in turn impacts the operations of government communication teams.

Rather than working with subject matter experts in the departments to better explain policy, programs, services and regulation, government communication teams are trapped by the urgent and immediate demands coming from a Minister’s office.  

It can’t be a lot of fun.

Then throw in the information demands of a once in a generation global pandemic and the increasing priority and importance of internal communication to generate alignment and performance from the thousands of people who work in the department or agency and who are now working from home and you have a recipe for carnage.

It can’t be easy.

So what to do?

This operating context is not going to change so the question had to be “how do we grow and adapt to meet the evolving challenges and new opportunities created by our customers without blowing ourselves up?’’

I like the term ‘’adaptive persistence’. With change ever present, we need to accept that we have to test and learn. What we know today might not be so tomorrow. We need to understand what is reasonable and what is not. And give our best effort every day.

And we need to re-shape and re-tool the mindsets, capabilities, and skills of Government communication teams.  We need to strengthen collaborative internal relationships with people like subject matter experts, HR, Legal, Data, ICT as we establish ‘’value for money’’ relationships with external suppliers.

It is  a massive task. It will be like painting the Harbour Bridge, or multiple Harbour Bridges. When you get to the end, it will be time to start again.

So here are my 7 suggestions to get started.

  1. Get out from behind your desk and find out what is going on.

This can be hard as the constant flow of requests pins you to your screen and with many people now no longer working every day in the building, you have to be curious about what is going on and how your branch, division, group, department and or agency is changing.

Because it is changing.

It might not be immediately apparent but technology and priority mean that it evolving. As communicators, we need to locate the change, identify the new intersections of influence and power and find better ways to explain the policies and programs of the elected government of the day

2. Anchor yourself in the needs of the citizen or stakeholder.

With so much going on all the time, you can often find yourself in a place of either repeating a task that you have always done or doing something that someone has asked you to do that makes no sense. As communicators, we must always be solving a problem or taking an opportunity. With so much call on too few resources, we must decide what the priority is, convince our superiors with evidence and always drive toward the needs of our audience.

Customer experience is an emerging practice area in government so bringing the needs of the citizens and stakeholders to the centre of all discussions will anchor our work in solving the problems the community want and need us to solve.

3. Acquire new skills

This is table stakes.

Whatever you know today, won’t be good enough tomorrow.

We live in a world of exponentially and accelerating change.  As artificial intelligence matures, 5G and sensors become ubiquitous, augmented and virtual reality grab the mainstream, and content is even more important, we have to continue to ‘’sharpen the axe’’ of our skill sets to ensure that we can make the most of the potential upside of these changes.

The traditional skills of strategic thinking, behavioural insights, project management and clear writing will always be relevant but will now be applied in a constantly evolving realm.

4. Be curious about misinformation and disinformation.

With trust in Government hitting an all-time low in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer and the challenges of mis- and disinformation more prevalent and damaging to the polity, government communicators must be at the forefront of detection, prevention and deterrence.

Government communicators must be ready with the knowledge, skills, behaviour and attitude to make a difference.

5. Commit to a strategy

Too often we end up “doing” before “thinking”.

In order to demonstrate the impact and value of our advice and action, it must be grounded in evidence and insights, and be linked to a specific policy, program or regulatory objectives.

If we can’t draw a clear line from the activity we are recommending to the problem we are looking to solve, it’s time to put pens down.

Now that demand is at an all-time high, we need to wrestle it into our planning frameworks so we make the most of our limited time and resources and give us our best chance of success.

6. Listen twice as much as you talk

Top-down, command and control information distribution does not work in the digital age. Take the time, opportunity and the capacity of the digital platforms to start conversations and engage in genuine two-way dialogue with citizens and stakeholders.

It is the gift of technology that feedback is available in real-time so reach out to the members of your audience(s) who will be most affected by your decisions and seek their views.

You just never know what you might learn.

7. Be kind to yourself and to others.  

This is a difficult and challenging time. Change is never easy and there is always and will always be too much to do. Communicate clearly with your team members and reach out for help when it’s required.

The mission of all government communicators is to help better explain policy, program, services and regulation so citizens and stakeholders better understand the decisions of their elected leaders. It’s a noble and important mission being carried out in difficult circumstances.

Stick at it, make progress and remember to be kind to yourself and to others.

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