Profile: 'Don't call us the taxman' says HMRC comms director Poli Stuart-Lacey

Poli Stuart-Lacey, the director of communications at HMRC, is on a mission to consign the stuffy 'taxman' image of the institution to the history books and reposition it as a vibrant, diverse and fair organisation in the eyes of the public.

Changing the public's perception of HMRC is high on Poli Stuart-Lacey's to-do list
Changing the public's perception of HMRC is high on Poli Stuart-Lacey's to-do list

In an exclusive interview with PRWeek, Stuart-Lacey talks about her plans to give a more human face to the HMRC brand, the spirit of collaboration that drives her work and how the gender balance in government comms has changed during her career.

Growing up in Oxford

Stuart-Lacey grew up in the beating heart of English academia, in Oxford; the daughter of her university dean father, who taught law at Hertford College, and her Polish immigrant mother, who came to the UK at the end of the Second World War.

The comms chief describes her childhood as growing up "feeling a bit like Lyra", the fearless heroine of Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy.

The association with Pullman does not end there. "He was my English teacher at school. He was brilliant," Stuart-Lacey reveals.

University years

Stuart-Lacey studied French and Italian at university. Languages are a tradition in her family; her mother won a scholarship to Oxford to study Russian and French, while her older brother studied French and Greek.

She jokes that her degree choice betrayed either a lack of creativity or a shared tradition in her household, but she speaks warmly of spending a year of her degree in Bologna, Italy, hearing lectures by the writer and philosopher Umberto Eco.

A career in government comms was not on her radar at this stage.

She says: "I didn’t have a specific career in my mind. I was confident, I suppose, in my young mind, that there were lots of options that I could follow from an arts degree."

Choosing a career

Early career ideas for Stuart-Lacey included the law or, perhaps more relevant to the path she eventually chose, becoming a psychiatrist.

She says: "I really liked thinking about what made people tick and how people rationalise things. I didn’t plan to go into communications, but looking back I can see why I was attracted to it, because of the impact you can have – especially in terms of behaviour-change and raising awareness."

Stuart-Lacey’s first taste of what the government machine looked like from the inside was working as a private secretary to Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education in the Department for Education and Skills during the heady days of Tony Blair’s first 'New Labour' administration.

It was an eye-opening experience.

"It’s hard not to be interested in the political world when you’re so close to the decision-makers," she says, referring to the frisson she felt at being party to major developments before they became public.

First comms role

While working for Morris, Stuart-Lacey had a lot of interaction with the department’s press team and she decided to join them after a senior member of the team encouraged her to apply for a job.

She worked on the news desk, getting to know journalists and learning how to source answers for them quickly, as well as working on campaigns such as 'Aim Higher'.

Along with learning the skills of how to manage an interview, briefing colleagues and journalists and how to promote a story, Stuart-Lacey also gained her first insight into a key comms skill. 

She says: "Looking back, I was thinking about reputation for the first time… how do I maintain and look after the reputation of this department or this issue or of this minister. That was really where I felt the stretch."

Stuart-Lacey says she felt invested in her work, but did she believe in the messages she was helping the department to put out?

"I believed that I was putting out the right messages to support the policies of the day," she answers, with studied neutrality. "We’re there to do a job, whichever government has been voted in, and we need to support their messages and package them in a suitable way for the audiences."

Sticking with the public sector

Stuart-Lacey’s CV shows an impressive commitment to public sector comms, having worked for six government departments in the course of her career, so far, including the Home Office, Defra and the Cabinet Office.

Part of what keeps her committed is the sheer scope of the sector, particularly in central government.

She says: "Governments change so there’s never a sort of steady state where it feels boring or dull… you’re at the heart of what’s making the country tick and you’re experiencing history in the making. It’s a very enticing prospect and one that I’ve continued to find engaging."

Ever the diplomat, Stuart-Lacey says she has found the positive in all her roles across government, but there is one unifying aspect of the job which she continues to find compelling.

"What I enjoy most is the collaboration to do really great things, and where I don’t think I flourish so much is in a closed environment when that collaboration isn’t possible – where you lose that brilliance, that ‘sum-of-all-parts’ approach."

Her experiences at the Home Office, working with emergency and security services on crisis comms exercises, or at Defra, working on a slightly more prosaic battery recycling campaign with external stakeholders, all fit with the collaborative approach she finds most rewarding.

She says: "It's when we can open the doors and bring the outside in and be a fuller team – that’s what I love and that’s what I’ve had in most of the departments, at one time or another." 

Somebody of Stuart-Lacey’s experience might command a salary far in excess of anything she might receive in the public sector, but she laughs off the suggestion as "a nice problem to think about" and says she is not considering a move into the private sector for the time being.

The reputation and brand of HMRC

As the UK’s sole tax authority, HMRC does not have a competitor so does its brand persona even matter?

Stuart-Lacey says: "We still need to put our customers first, we still need to treat people the right way and we still need to think about how we position ourselves, nationally and internationally."

This is an important point and she thinks the organisation still has work to do to improve how it interacts with the public. 

"Reputation really does matter for us and I think brand is the really interesting question, because it comes back to who we are for people – what defines us as an organisation, not just as a set of different messages, campaigns, or instructions."

She bridles at the term 'taxman', a lazy shorthand often used by the media and the public to describe part of HMRC's remit.

She says: "I find that really frustrating because I don’t in any way relate to that taxman reference. It’s a useful proxy for HMRC and what we do, but it really does not define us. We represent the country that we’re in and there are probably more women than men in the department, so for me it doesn’t represent the diversity and the huge range of capabilities that we’ve got here."

The brown envelope

Every adult taxpayer in the UK has had some form of interaction with HMRC during their lifetime. Often that comes in the form of a familiar brown envelope landing on the doormat.

Stuart-Lacey says: "That brand that lands on your doorstep is just as important as the ads we put out to try to remind people about self-assessment."

It is critical, she believes, not only to get the information in those brown envelopes right, but to make the correspondence meaningful and helpful. Because it is these interactions that help define HMRC’s reputation and brand in the eyes of the public. 

Stuart-Lacey is convinced HMRC could do more to make the organisation more approachable.

"The public don’t really know who we are. I think there’s quite a thick wall around HMRC, which makes the brown envelope represent us, and I’d like to work with colleagues to really improve the services and the content.".

Poli Stuart-Lacey, director of comms at HMRC

She says: "Do we always need to communicate through letter or can we take a more ‘self-help’ approach to videos, such as how to do self-assessment? Just humanising the face of HMRC is a really important thing to try to achieve. There is an image of an old-fashioned and bureaucratic organisation but there’s a distance from the reality of what I see within." 

It is also Stuart-Lacey’s aim to improve the way HMRC communicates with the public by cutting through the complexity of the tax system and the other policies it administers.

She continues: "The public don’t really know who we are. I think there’s quite a thick wall around HMRC, which makes the brown envelope represent us, and I’d like to work with colleagues to really improve the services [and] the content."

Public perception of HMRC

HMRC has come a long way in terms of public perception, according to Stuart-Lacey, who cites surveys it has carried out that show a marked improvement in the past five years.

However, it is not a simple task to maintain that direction of travel.

Stuart-Lacey says: "Customers tend to have a very personal view of HMRC, depending on their experience, and that will bring a bias which is positive or less positive to their view of us. That’s something we’re still trying to improve by giving them a great service."

Part of HMRC’s drive to improve people's perception of it involves finding new ways to tell its story, but also inviting the public to be part of that story.

Once again, it comes back to humanising and personalising the services HMRC offers. Stuart-Lacey cites the recent tax-free childcare campaign as a case in point.

She says: "People were telling their own stories about what tax-free childcare is enabling them to do, such as going back to work sooner than they planned to." 

However, it must also balance its approachable face with maintaining its clout as an enforcement agency for those who avoid paying tax and it is in the unenviable position, from a perception standpoint, of enforcing tax rules rather than creating them.  

HMRC and the media

HMRC is an organisation that is rarely out of the media spotlight, thanks to the obvious role the tax system plays in the lives of most adults.

The comms chief says HMRC was constantly in the news and on the front pages a few years ago – "and not in a positive way" – but that more recently the coverage has been more balanced.

The volume and sometimes ferocity of the coverage is not just a symptom of complexities in the tax system that people do not understand, it comes down to fundamental questions of where one stands on the political spectrum and what one believes the state should do.

Stuart-Lacey says: "[Tax] touches on the things that really matter to us as citizens; how we look after our families, how we look after ourselves in older age, what money we bring in and invest in our families. All that stuff is really emotive. It might be complicated, but it also is intrinsic to the way we live as citizens, so I understand why it gets coverage."

The solution, as far as HMRC's media strategy is concerned, is for it to be proactive about explaining what it does and "getting in front of the story" rather than being put on the back foot and defending itself in the face of negative stories. 

It does not help HMRC’s cause when the media focuses on a certain type of tax story, which, once again, stems from an issue outside its control.

Stuart-Lacey says: "One area where it is difficult is [HMRC] going after smaller business or individuals when actually the bigger businesses pay less tax in people’s perception. That’s a difficult one, because it comes back to the legal framework at the moment in terms of what companies are asked to pay." 

However, HMRC is adapting, and perhaps benefitting, from the media environment in which it finds itself – one in which people pick from a far broader range of media outlets than they did previously, and which has the potential effect of diluting, or at least balancing, negative coverage from one outlet.

But it is HMRC’s social media accounts that have proved to be an effective weapon in its media strategy, using Twitter, among others, to advocate on behalf of the service when there is an issue people are talking about. 

The organisation will always be subject to people’s political opinion about tax, but it can explain what the current rules are and the best way for people to comply with them.

Stuart-Lacey says: "We’re interested in being much more agile and rebutting information that isn’t right in the media. We absolutely will do that, and we can do that more quickly now thorough social media."

Even when it is not using social media as a rapid rebuttal system, HMRC is increasingly using it – much as a modern pop star would – to have a direct relationship with its public.

Stuart-Lacey says: "In some ways we are short-cutting the media out of some of those relationships between the customers and us, and I think that’s really important too."

So is there a future for the relationship between HMRC and the media, and what does that look like?

For Stuart-Lacey, it is about working with the right media when there is a new tax policy to explain, such as tax-free childcare, to help raise awareness of it among the public.

She says: "Where we can either provide briefing or background, and get media in and a talk them through a complex policy, product or service and enable them to set it out for their readers; I think that’s a brilliant partnership and exactly what we should be doing with media colleagues."

Internal comms at HMRC

Increasingly, an organisation’s employees are seen as a potentially valuable source of external advocacy and micro-influencing, but for that to be possible they have to be engaged and HMRC has a unique issue.

Stuart-Lacey says: "All of our employees are taxpayers too and they will bring their personal bias into how they feel about us as an organisation versus how they feel about working in the team, so it’s really interesting to think about how we engage people and make them feel part of an organisation that they’re also a customer of."

It is fair to say that HMRC’s staff are on a journey – one that Stuart-Lacey describes as "one of the most ambitious transformation programmes in Europe". 

The process, which began three years ago, will eventually reorganise HMRC into 13 regional centres across the UK.

Taking the 67,000 people who work for HMRC with them, and not just physically, is a huge challenge and requires an ongoing internal comms programme to aid a smooth transition.

"We’ve got a lot of plans for how we want to harness our employees' engagement and capabilities and enthusiasm, but we’ve also got a job to do in making sure they just understand where we’re heading and what that means for them," says Stuart-Lacey.

Women in comms leadership

HMRC’s executive committee, which oversees its work and sets overall strategy, has become more balanced in terms of its gender diversity, with an increasing number of women sat at the 'top table'. Stuart-Lacey believes this provides role models for her and other women across the organisation.

But does she see this movement translated into the top jobs across government comms?

She says: "If I’m looking across the directors of comms across the departments, there’s been a really big shift over the past few years on that gender balance. I definitely would have felt in the minority in the past and I don’t feel that now. I think there’s been a deliberate investment in ensuring a better balance at those senior levels."

The facts speak to the truth of this: of the comms teams at 23 of the major government and non-ministerial government departments, including HMRC, 11 are currently headed by women.  

But what of the promotion prospects for women in government comms – are women recognised for their achievements as much as men?

Stuart-Lacey says: "There’s definitely a lot of encouragement for women to come through and aim high. I take that very seriously here and I know that’s being taken seriously across government comms as well, so there’s a real appetite for women early in their career to aim high."

Pressed on the notion of whether women are well-served in terms of their career prospects, she adds: "We’re served well in the sense that we’re encouraged and I see a lot of good role-modelling going on across government communications at the moment. There’s a noticeable new generation of senior female leaders in government communications."

But it's not about 'being seen to be as good as a man' in the same role. Stuart-Lacey says: "I don’t believe there is one way of being a leader in communications. This might sound corny, but I don’t want to be like [men] to succeed and I would do a really bad job if I tried, because I wouldn’t be authentic. You bring a different set of skills, potentially, depending not just on gender but on your ethnicity, background and experience." 

Instead, Stuart-Lacey thinks women should concentrate on developing strong leadership skills, their professional standards and fine-tuning all the pillars of communications needed to uphold the reputation of the organisations they serve.

The gender pay gap

In April, all companies and organisations with more than 250 employees were compelled by the Government Equalities Office to publish their gender pay gap figures and they will continue to do so annually, allowing the public and potential employees to track their progress over time.

Organisations where a significant gender pay gap exists must be mindful of the impact of the new transparency on their ability to attract the best employees, including the oft-cited millennial generation.

Stuart-Lacey says: "If you want to be a modern organisation with a thriving workforce it’s going to have to be on the list of things to do."

Does she think more can be done with comms to combat the gender pay gap – which at HMRC stands at nearly nine per cent in favour of men?

She says: "We need to think about different ways of targeting those messages and I think that’s where campaigns really come to the fore. How do we reach our audiences? Those audiences aren’t necessarily people who yet think that they [are] the audience, they don’t think they might be applying for a job in whatever field, so it’s absolutely where campaigns can come into it."

Spare time and favourite public sector campaign 

When Stuart-Lacey is not reading the money pages of various national newspapers for fun at the weekends, she finds running therapeutic and that her two children keep her on her toes and feeling energised.

She said: "I love going to the cinema with them during half term at 11 in the morning with a coffee to watch some silly film. It's loads of fun to do that."

There are no pets in the Stuart-Lacey household, however, and she resists her children’s demands to get one, urging them to play with the squirrels instead.

It is perhaps not surprising, given Stuart-Lacey’s attitude to the achievement prospects of women, that her favourite, non-HMRC, public sector campaign in recent years is Sport England’s award-winning 'This Girl Can' campaign, which aimed to inspire women and girls to exercise and redress the gender gap between male and female participation in sports.

She said: "My daughter is very sporty and that’s what she wants to do with her life. I found the creative and execution of that campaign inspiring and powerful. It resonates really well, its pitched really well and it’s a really clever campaign with a clever call to action." 

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