The public and private sectors are brothers in comms

Working in comms for private or public sector bodies is more similar, and useful, than you might think.

Arthur Leathley: director of cross-government comms at the Cabinet Office

One of the most futile debates over late-night bottles of wine at industry events is whether private or public sector comms is ‘better’ than the other.

It needs knowledge of each sector to see the relative benefits and it is surprising to see the speed and vehemence with which some comms professionals criticise a sector of which they have no working experience. 

During my 13 years working in the private sector as a comms director, and the last year in Whitehall, I have found the similarities are more striking than the differences.

True, scrutiny of government creates a maze of complexity that does not generally afflict the commercial sector. But the pressure of winning market share, which churns stomachs in the private sector, does not keep public servants awake at night.

By understanding and respecting each other’s challenges, rather than ignoring them, we can each build our strengths.

The private sector has a wealth of knowledge about understanding and communicating with customers, and has dev­eloped sophisticated measurement of subtle changes in public sentiment from which the Government could learn.

Against that, the ability of many Whitehall departments to work tog­ether under pressure on a complex global issue such as the Ebo­la virus has developed abilities many companies would value.

So why should we care about each other? Because we need to combine talent and knowledge to cope with the global complexity of modern comms.

Both sectors are about persuasion and changing people’s experience. Equally, the drive to cut costs is putting each sector under pressure, just as the number of comms channels and public demand for reliable information grow.

That is why the Government Communication Service, which is professionalising comms across the public sector, is engaged with dozens of comms suppliers – from global brands to the smallest of SMEs – to develop campaigns that build public trust.

We are doing this in four ways. First, by using private sector challenges to improve our departments and agencies. Second, by offering secondment opportunities that enable both sectors to widen expertise.

Third, through events for private sector partners to discuss issues with government communicators. Fourth, through our partnership guidance, providing a route for firms and charities to take part in government campaigns.

Some government campaigns might not appear to be natural causes for the private sector to champion, but communicators working across both sectors have proved vital in driving these forward.

Awareness of dementia, male rape support, cycle safety and the crusade against female genital mutilation are all examples of the public and private sector working arm-in-arm.

In sharing skills, we will grow the quality of comms, adding to the professionalism that will enable communicators to take their position at the top table of public and private organisations.

Arthur Leathley is director of cross-government comms at the Cabinet Office

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