A change in store for Whitehall PR

A crack team of well trained and multi-skilled professionals is transforming government PR.

Recently, Hollyoaks viewers will have spotted two of the show’s central characters involved in an uncomfortable exchange. A boyfriend demands to see his girlfriend’s phone, and it gets worse from there. The end slate was clear: "This is abuse." TV was followed by social media calls to action, a radio partnership and targeted print coverage to combat this sort of abuse. 

I doubt that any of those viewers thought they were watching a campaign from the Home Office. I doubt that the audience for the Department for International Development’s female genital mutilation campaign understood that it was government-led activity. But that doesn’t matter. What is important is that these messages cut through. 

Next month the Government Communications Plan will be published. It covers three themes, six duties, 130 campaigns and 240 activities. The major themes are our activity to build economic confidence, support aspiration and secure foreign policy objectives. It represents the work of 3,000 communicators and a spend of around £300m. Its successful implementation relies entirely on brilliant execution from highly effective communicators. In the end, it means nothing unless we are saving lives, stopping abuse, helping people succeed. 

These are important ambitions and they must be fulfilled against a changing backdrop. Audiences are splintering, media fragmenting and money remains tight. For years Whitehall communicators were generically seen as ‘press officers’, but the new world demands that they have different skills. 

Delivering the plan requires a transformation in the skills of government PR staff. We will start moving from single-skilled silos to create a team of multi-skilled campaigners who can analyse data, edit content, build alliances and apply ‘nudge’ techniques to complex communications problems. 

The new Government Communications Service will set as a minimum requirement the need for staff to do four annual pieces of professional development including improving evaluation skills and digital communications and understanding a discipline different from their core skill. In this way we intend that digital and press operations will merge and PR officers will start understanding internal communications and vice versa.

Supporting this drive is a real commitment across Whitehall to stronger learning. It’s evinced in the new Defence Communicator network led by Stephen Jolly, the IC Space initiative from Russell Grossman and the joint local-central government communications conference. All are evidence of a desire to accelerate learning and master new campaign techniques.

We are reaping the benefits already. This year has seen the launch of successful campaigns promoting trade and tourism, tackling obesity and encouraging small business.

Spending time on structured training and making it part of the requirement for every communicator is the quickest way to improve quality. In doing so, public PR will be delivered by the most skilled group of professionals this country has ever seen. 

Alex Aiken is executive director for government communications 

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