News Analysis: COI adopts the consumer mindset

As the Central Office of Information unveils its largest-ever PR roster, Sarah Robertson outlines who's in, who's out and examines the consumer philosophy driving the Government's communications with the public.

The Central Office of Information's latest PR roster for the first time contains consumer specialist agencies better known for promoting brands such as Tango (Cunning), Motorola (The Fish Can Sing) and Reebok (Cake).

The COI now boasts its biggest-ever PR line-up, consisting of 31agencies - five of which specialise in consumer PR (the others being Frank PR and Kazoo Communications) while it continues to use multi-practice agencies with consumer offerings. This pool of expertise will be called on to handle campaigns ranging from domestic violence, to binge drinking and tax returns.

Agency applications hit 170

COI Communications head of PR and sponsorship Oliver Hickson, who heads a 26-strong team, deputy head of PR Janice O'Reilly and head of PR Jo Dickson, spent 600 hours considering applications from 170 agencies.

The roster will be reviewed again in three to five years. Hickson explains: 'We are not looking to see if we need traditional agencies or not but at who the audience is and who understands how to reach that audience.'

The £10m roster's overhaul coincided with last week's publication of the Public Health White Paper, which lauded the marketing strategies of the commercial sector.

The key influence in the evolution of government communications strategy - reflected in the selection of consumer shops - is New Labour's public service reform agenda. It promotes the idea that citizens are no longer passive recipients of public services, but consumers who exercise choice.

Of course certain campaigns, such as an HM Customs and Excise's push to promote VAT self-assessment to small businesses by Fishburn Hedges, require no such specialist consumer nous.But the shift in approach means government departments will, where appropriate, emulate the comms approach of consumer brands.

Dan Holliday, founding partner of first-time member of the COI roster The Fish Can Sing, says 'traditional' agencies lack the creativity needed to entertain, a crucial part of getting people to take on certain messages.

'Engaging with the consumer has never been harder - people are blitzed by commercial messages and bewildered by the plethora of media channels - and any type of brand loyalty has become next to impossible. I would suspect this change in government policy is an acknowledgement of that reality,' he says.

Fishburn Hedges director of planning Sue Garrard says: 'The Government's use of communications has shifted gradually over the years. It now has huge behavioural-change requirements. Saving people from an early death through obesity is one of the biggest communications challenges it has ever had. Its campaigns aim to influence how people make lifestyle choices.'

But she cautions: 'The COI has cast its net wider, which is right, but will it find that the tactics that work in promoting brands also work in promoting government messages? Government communications is about understanding issues, rather than products.'

And a former COI agency PRO warns that consumer shops might fail to grapple with the political sensitivities of the public sector: 'Dealing with the public sector is not like selling Coke. In terms of political nous, it is crucial that agencies understand what public sector clients need, especially in election year.'

O'Reilly, however, points out: 'It is our role to ensure agencies understand what it means to work for the public sector, but none of our campaigns are political - they are public education campaigns.'

The PR line-up is one of 22 rosters of suppliers managed by the COI.

The advertising roster, which is to be reviewed next spring, has the biggest budget, last year standing at £167m.

More than 70 per cent of the Government's comms effort is managed through the COI. The Home Office is the biggest PR spender, followed by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the Department of Health (DoH).

Not all departments automatically go through the COI for external marketing and comms resources. The DfES, for instance, compiled its own roster this year but continues to tap into the COI's where necessary.

Department of Constitutional Affairs director of comms Lucian Hudson says: 'Under (permanent secretary for government communications) Howell James, comms is aimed at better understanding the consumer. We have always targeted consumers but what is different here is a systematic attempt to appreciate different types of consumers.'

Indeed, in February the COI set up a separate Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) PR roster. 'This audience has very specific communications needs,' O'Reilly says. 'We recognise the importance of targeting them in the right way. They are not traditional PR groups and there are specific agencies targeting them. It is often about outreach work, going into communities and talking to community leaders.'

With a number of consumer shops now on board the main PR roster, it is clear the COI wants its campaigns to be more persuasive while moving away from appearing to be a nanny state.

Whether the messaging strategies crafted by agencies more accustomed to pushing the likes of Reebok and Tango deliver Whitehall's objectives remains to be seen.

COI ROSTER: OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW

- New agencies (16)

- Amazon PR; Blue Rubicon; Cake; Cohn & Wolfe; Cunning; The Fish Can Sing; Four Communications; Frank PR; Freud Communications; Harrison Cowley; Kazoo Communications; Lexis Public Relations; Manning Selvage & Lee; Munro and Forster Communications; Ptarmigan; Trimedia Communications

- Reappointed agencies (15)

Band & Brown Communications; Consolidated Communications; Edelman; Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster; Fishburn Hedges; The Forster Company; GCI; Geronimo; Good Relations; Grayling; Hill & Knowlton; Luther Pendragon; Porter Novelli; The Red Consultancy; Weber Shandwick

- Dropped agencies (11)

August.One Communications; Beattie Communications; Citigate Communications; Financial Dynamics; Golin/Harris; Kaizo; Ketchum; Kinross & Render; Prowse and Co; QBO Bell Pottinger; Quadrant.

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