For better or worse, #indyref2 is a 'news sponge' for Scottish public sector comms

Everyone in comms knows what a 'news sponge' is - a story or event that soaks up every ounce of available attention.

Love it or loathe it, #indyref2 is now a news sponge for Scottish public sector comms, argues John McTernan
Love it or loathe it, #indyref2 is now a news sponge for Scottish public sector comms, argues John McTernan
These can be good news – like the London Olympics – or they can be bad news – like the still unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 which for a period dominated the coverage of CNN.

With the invoking of Article 50 we have entered the age of Brexit-arama. Newspaper columnists will write Column A – Brexit is looking bad – and Column B – Brexit is looking a little better. 

There will be constant coverage on rolling news – amounting virtually to a 24 hour Brexit channel. 

Since the referendum result it has been hard to get coverage for any story if it did not have a Brexit angle; which has delighted the creative – whether they came up with the buy British button for online sales or the triumphant walk down Downing Street after a meaningless exchange of persiflage masquerading as reassurance. 

It has taxed comms teams but it has been fun too – all those Brexit narratives and message houses.
But there is always someone who wants to go one better. 

This time it is Nicola Sturgeon. This week she said to Theresa May – ‘I see your Article 50 and raise you #indyref2’. 

It is a masterful move. Double referendum – the political equivalent of double denim and just as polarising.

What does this mean for comms professionals – apart from the awe that is always due to any move that is as awesome as it is awful? 

Awesome, because it has found a way to break through the Brexit logjam and awful because indyref2 is a second huge news sponge. 

How to get any other story through?

If you are the Scottish Government the challenge is clear – turn every story, every announcement, every statistic into an opportunity to make the case for independence. 

Is it ethical or even appropriate for public servants to do this? 

Obviously not, but the pass was sold at the time of the first independence referendum when the SNP Government published what was a purely party political manifesto as a White Paper. 

Anyway, for most in comms that is way above their pay grade. So, time to join the party. 

For every other public sector body there is one huge benefit of a second referendum – a chance to put out difficult stories safe in the knowledge that they will get no attention. 

So, poorly performing schools and hospitals, police forces that violate human rights and councils who have findings of maladministration against them should rejoice. 

As they say in the ‘West Wing’, it’s time to put out the trash.

Of course, there is an opportunity for the imaginative and inventive – there will be an appetite for stories that are neither about independence of Brexit. 

They will be sought out as a tonic, a change amidst all the monotony of indyref north of the border and Brexit south of it. 

These stories will have to have cut through – be sharp, striking and even witty enough to grab the attention of tired and jaded readers and viewers.

Difficult? Sure! 

But anyone who came into public sector comms for an easy life was, as Humphrey Bogart says in Casablanca, misinformed.

John McTernan is senior vice president and head of international political at Penn Schoen Berland and a former adviser to Tony Blair

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