Since the onset of public information campaigns, government has harnessed the power of spokespeople to reach audiences. In the modern comms era, the Government’s 2015 guide '7 Trends in Leading-Edge Communications' highlighted the role digital influencers can play in promoting messages to followers.
Fast-forward to 2018, and you’d be hard pushed to find a government campaign that doesn’t adopt this sort of advocacy as part of its engagement strategy or marketing approach.
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How effective it is depends on several critical factors – namely: audience insight; message relevance; the call to action; and authenticity of voice. It also depends on our ability to navigate an ever-changing media landscape.
And that’s where it gets more complicated – because just as the use of digital channels and voices has become normalised, so, too, the landscape has continued to evolve.
While we in the public sector have vital information and messaging to impart, the filters and noise we need to penetrate are no different to those of a retail giant or tech start-up.
The digital route, which allows us to tap into individual behaviour in a personalised way, is now so well-trodden that its impact risks being diluted through information overload. We, along with other news outlets and businesses, risk being consigned to spam history.
Consumer tolerance and trust have also changed, with the exposure of 'fake news' and the dark side of social media. Trolling, data exploitation and the rise of bots have hardened us as virtual citizens. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer (2018) only a quarter of the UK population now say they trust social media as a source of news and information, and the majority of those asked want greater regulation within the sector.
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This is where human nature prevails – while we are easily tempted by the shiny and new, and continue to embrace the art of the possible, we still want respect, empathy, humour and kindness. Addressing this delicate balance is where partnering influencers can make a huge difference. The best public-sector examples are where real people inspire others to take action or change behaviour. The 2016 Voter Registration campaign used macro and micro-influencers brilliantly.
Partnering trusted organisations and people – from local authorities to tech companies, civil society to student groups, and celebrities like Emma Watson and Idris Elba – record numbers of young people registered to vote.
The Department for Transport has had great success working with Anto Sharp to warn against the perils of texting while driving – a partnership aimed at young men that co-incided with the introduction of harsher penalties for new drivers; and Sport England’s 'This Girl Can' campaign, using real girls and women to inspire others, is a winning formula.
At the root of all these is compelling storytelling. That simple, enduring skill still drives the best results when influencing people to make life-changing and enhancing decisions.
Poli Stuart-Lacey is director of communications at HMRC