Neil Martinson: More for less isn't an option - it's a necessity

The age of austerity has started and, inevitably, the focus will be on cuts in advertising, marketing and communications.

Neil Martinson
Neil Martinson

For people in the business, both inside and outside government, it's a time of uncertainty.       

But, while we have to deal with that, we also have to deliver the best services we can for the government and the taxpayer. That means understanding the new policies and using all of our professional skills to be effective and efficient communicators.

There will still be a need for essential public information at every level. How much more effective if that was co-ordinated across national, regional and local levels? That doesn't mean top-down control but the possibility of opting-in to what could be on offer.

The potential for savings was illustrated by the insightful Total Place initiative between central and local government that sought to identify total public spending in geographical locations. It identified areas of duplication, overlap, and the scope to do more for less through working together more effectively. If that approach was applied to communications we would have a clear picture of spend and, importantly, effectiveness. One revealing insight is that there are 75 separate public sector websites and 65 public call centres in Leicestershire. That does make for a potentially confusing customer journey.

Most people engage with public services on a local level and in their neighbourhood. That makes public sector staff vitally important messengers. But how easy do we make it for them, their managers and their organisations to engage with our communications and add value for the citizen?

Utilising public assets - website, publications, and staff - should be the first consideration in any communication. It costs nothing except time. Likewise, what else is free? We have to think multi-media in what we produce without losing sight of the audience. That means news release, video, audio, and relevant digital content at a cost that represents good value.

Even on regional and local levels audiences are complex and channels fragmented. We know, for example, that for the digitally disenfranchised (30 per cent of the population) local newspapers, radio and television remain the most important sources of information after peer relationships.

Spray and pray isn't good enough, we need to apply robust planning principles and techniques with consistent evaluation.

Partnership working with the third sector can be effective if we are respectful of their values and understand the relationship that they have with their members or audiences. They can reach audiences that government cannot. But do we have the structures that enable effective collaboration?

More for less isn't an option, it's a necessity. Nowhere is that more apparent that in bridging the gap between national, regional and local. As a cyclist, I've often seen adverts on buses in Lambeth about a health campaign where the call centre is in Haringey and the very same issue on a bus in Haringey for a call centre in Lambeth. Is it not possible to join-up and have a single London-wide campaign? In metropolitan areas audiences are mobile, even if the public services may not be. One set of collateral, one call-centre, and one message, produces large savings and better serves the public.

We can also be more structured in how we learn from the local, where the changes take place, on what works and what doesn't and whether it is transferable and scale-able. And we can learn more from commercial ventures in using fast-track research to increase the speed at which we evaluate and then apply the learning.

If we aggregate knowledge, learning, strategy and delivery we can make significant cost saving and improve the effectiveness of our communications. That could take place nationally, regionally or locally, based on what works rather than who does it. It means big cultural changes in public sector thinking. "Not invented here," should not survive in any climate, least of all one where resources are so tight.

Finally, let's take advantage of technology to open up the communications resources that are developed across the public sector. There will be fewer adverts on television, radio and at the cinema but it cannot make sense for them to be the only channels of distribution. All should be available on open digital platforms for public and partners. Likewise, there will still be a requirement for hard copies, whether posters or publications, and those too should be available on a digital distribution platform. Open systems reduce or eliminate distribution costs and provide citizens with direct access to the information. Go one step further and allow for co-creation and comment during production and we can produce better outcomes. That can only be empowering.

Neil Martinson is director of news and PR at the COI

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