View from the top: The message man

One year on from taking the COI helm, people's man Alan Bishop talks to Stephanie Roberts about communicating corporate messages

Alan Bishop doesn't look like a hippy or a mummy's boy. Elegantly dressed in the style that befits a man who once held the title of chairman, international, at advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, he is nevertheless evangelising about how 'all you need is love' and reveals that his greatest inspiration has been his mother and people of her generation.

This is not the first sign that there are two sides to Bishop. Who's Who 2004 may claim that Bishop's recreations are the gentlemanly pursuits of bridge and cricket, but it is well documented among his colleagues at the Central Office of Information that the 50-year-old has demonstrated the confidence of a young Mick Jagger while belting out a rendition of The Troggs's Wild Thing at last year's summer party.

On meeting in his comfortable office in an unglamorous building on the wrong side of Westminster Bridge, Bishop at first appears a little restrained and uncomfortable with being interviewed, although affable. Marking more than a year in his first public sector role as COI chief executive, he toes the line of the government procurement service and seems keen to deliver the corporate message; an echo of the private sector he was once a part of.

Bishop embarked on his advertising career at Bates in London in 1974.

Four years on and he was on the move to become a founding partner of start-up agency Milton Sharam Gottlieb. In 1981 he joined Foote Cone & Belding, returned to Bates in 1983, and then embarked on a stretch of senior appointments at Saatchi & Saatchi from 1985, latterly spending time in the US-based role.

Yet he has no regrets about leaving the commercial world of advertising.

In fact, he admits the only pang of nostalgia he feels is for the buzz of New York.

Stepping into the shoes vacated by his predecessor Caroline Fisher, Bishop was attracted to the COI role because 'I loved working on COI accounts such as army recruitment, nursing recruitment and energy conservation, while sitting on the other side of the fence at Saatchis - the work was both interesting and worthwhile'.

For others, the transition from private to public sector may not have been so effortless. Bishop, however, reveals his secret for feeling at home on either side of the fence; he can't live without company. 'I'm not one for being on my own. People say to me I must do these jobs because I like networking. They have no idea that as I like being around people I basically tried to work out what kind of career would allow me to do this.'

Now, overseeing the 400 staff at COI means he always has plenty of company.

And, in addition to his reporting line straight to Douglas Alexander in the Cabinet Office, he's kept busy with a second civil service title of accounting officer. 'We sell our services to the rest of the Government and make nearly all our income from selling those services; we're obliged to break even,' he says.

He's confident there won't be any surprises with this year's figures, an issue he must feel a sense of relief about. When he joined COI in January 2003, Bishop had to make friends again with the Department of Transport, after it set up its own advertising roster - but COI is now in talks to re-open discussions with the DoT. The COI already works on the entire spectrum of communication campaigns for government departments from the Department of Health and the DTI to the Teacher Training Agency and the Army.

Communicating government's message

With such a substantial remit, it's little wonder Bishop felt it took him a while to settle into his COI role: 'When I first started, I was desperately trying to keep such a large amount of information in my mind.

I found it absolutely mind-blowing, especially in the first three months of my job, I felt so shattered trying to remember everything and keep a grip on all the work we were doing and all the people and companies we work with.'

Having trouble keeping abreast of everything is a thing of the past as Bishop has committed himself to the huge task of communicating the Government's messages effectively to everyone in the country. He has recently overseen the launch of the COI's Inclusivity Consultancy; a service, he says 'will develop an insight into any target audience that the rest of the world doesn't take enough notice of'. This includes not just communicating government information messages to ethnic minority groups, but to people with learning difficulties, people over 60, those that are functionally illiterate, and people whose second language is English.

Ever the diplomat, he's quick to point out that he doesn't think the comms industry has been ignoring these groups: 'Obviously it's a truism to say that the commercial world is only interested in groups that spend money, but why shouldn't they be? I don't think these groups had been ignored before but we felt they deserved more attention. For some government departments there will be no one else to develop these means of communications so it has to be us. And we're very excited about it.'

Despite facing a UK population that is becoming more politically literate, and with opinion polls following the publication of the Hutton Report showing lower levels of trust in the Government, Bishop claims communicating government messages effectively to every man, woman and child in the UK is not such an onerous task, simply because the COI's campaigns aren't political. 'We make sure there is a complete separation between party political messages and government information messages. Look at our campaigns - we're advising elder people to get their flu jabs, we're telling parents about child protection on the internet, that's not political.'

Nevertheless, there's no hiding his enthusiasm for how last month's Phillis Review has identified the COI's position and clarified that separation between party political messages and government information messages.

The review recommended that the COI is better integrated with the rest of government particularly for co-ordination of government campaigns and for cross-cutting campaigns that affect more than one government department.

That integration will be represented by a new link between the COI and a new permanent secretary, who is likely to be announced in April.

Bishop admits the current ratio of the COI's advertising to PR spend is approximately 3:1; will PR see a greater slice of the budget as we move through 2004? 'To the outside world it may look like we're spending a huge amount of the budget on advertising and a tiny amount on PR, but the balance is moving towards PR,' he says. Indeed, last year, the COI's annual report revealed its spend on PR was up £1m on the previous year (PRWeek, 23 July 2003), covering PR work procured for departments as well as campaigns handled by the COI itself.

Effective evaluation matters

Campaign evaluation remains a key focus for Bishop, although he concedes that PR campaigns are harder to evaluate than advertising, describing it as 'an industry-wide challenge'. 'Evaluation is critical for our campaigns, and we never give simple AVEs. PR does need to get much deeper. We're probably more motivated than anybody to measure effectiveness because we are working for the Government.' Indeed, he welcomes and supports the IPR's efforts to improve evaluation.

Effective evaluation equals transparency, an issue Bishop is eager to maintain. But, he wants that to be reflected in the media too: 'I know that if we're going to have an attitude of transparency we are sometimes going to get things wrong and will be criticised. All I ask is that when we're going in the right direction and getting it right that it is reflected in the media.'

With nearly 30 years in the private sector, Bishop's commercial savvy still shines through, and he looks to take both COI and government messages forward with gusto. But underneath the tailored suit, there's still an element of a caring, sharing,people's man. Maybe at the next COI staff party, his karaoke choice will be All You Need is Love.

COI AGENCY REVIEW

The COI's roster of agencies has long been regarded as a lucrative list for PR agencies to get on to.

The COI is bringing forward a review of the roster due the number of mergers and acquisitions among agencies since the last overhaul. It's not a particularly radical initiative to bring the review forward, says COI senior corporate PR manager Janice O'Reilly, but a chance to review it at the earliest opportunity - after three years rather than five. It is hoped the review will be complete by September.

'We've had a huge number of agencies contact us about it,' says O'Reilly.

'If anybody expressed an interest in the past formally - as in not someone who's lurched into a bar and slurring "I fancy doing PR for you", then they'll be notified when we're doing rosters.'

O'Reilly adds: 'We're looking for agencies that meet the COI's diverse needs. There are quite a wide range of capabilities, such as B2B, corporate work, youth audiences and it helps to have a knowledge of diverse sectors, for example education, health and business.'

Furthermore, COI has set up its first roster of agencies dedicated to communicating with ethnic minorities.

1974: Joined London-based advertising agency Bates

1978: Moved to start-up agency Milton Sharam Gottlieb

1981: Joined Foote Cone & Belding

1983: Returned to Bates

1985: Embarked on career with Saatchi & Saatchi

2003: Joined COI as chief executive

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