Improve or remove printed materials

The National Audit Office recently investigated the provision of printed information by the Department for Work and Pensions. Its central conclusion was that the £31m outlay on producing 250 information leaflets was not necessarily well spent.

The report cited problems with wasted, out-of-date material, indecision and the production of material that was 'difficult to understand'.

This matters because printed information – booklets and leaflets – is still at the centre of our public relations. Government is complex and our primary role is to distill policies and processes into accessible guides to access services. And printed material normally forms the basis of web copy.

Many local authorities are blissfully unaware of the confusion their paper misinformation causes. Communication reviews that I have undertaken have shown that authorities produce between 500 and 1,000 printed publications, yet for many the crucial public 'informed' rating sticks stubbornly around 40-50 per cent.

In one London borough we found the services that produced the most material – more than 300 publications – had the same 45 per cent 'lack of information' score from residents as departments producing a third of the quantity. Clearly more words do not always lead to greater understanding.

We must produce fewer, better publications. And this means corporate communications teams acting to refuse, retire or revoke vanity publications. There are three tests you can use to examine whether the publication makes sense.

First, is it 'print you can use'? Leaflets need a clear purpose, website details, feedback forms or other ways of allowing the customer to take action.

Second, follow your customer feedback. The National Audit report identified five consumer preferences: signpost the contents, put the help-line on the front, print important information in bold, write information as Q&As and include a glossary of technical terms. They are simple ideas but you have to be disciplined to implement them.

Third, 'review and reduce' material by measuring impact on customers. If a publication is not being understood, it must improve or die. Provision of printed public information should be about survival of the fittest, or at least the clearest.

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