Comms in focus: Academy 2020

The Public Service Communications Academy takes place next week. While this year’s event is fully virtual, this annual partnership with LGComms is again a unique opportunity for colleagues from local government as well as from GCS to share, reflect and learn.

Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communication.
Alex Aiken

Throughout the event, which runs from Tuesday 24 to Thursday 26 November, speakers will reflect on the extraordinary events of the past year, and look ahead at how we can continue to support the public sector across local, regional and national priorities.

As ever, public service communications professionals have demonstrated their resilience and expertise over the past year. The Public Service Communications Awards, on Thursday 26 November, will celebrate excellence and recognise these achievements – against a backdrop dominated by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The virus has impacted every sector, and communication is no different. It has shown the critical nature of our work in listening and engaging with internal and external stakeholders. It has forced us to adopt new ways of working, and reframed the way we communicate.

6 key areas to build the communications profession

The pandemic has displayed the important role our profession can play, locally and nationally. Communication has been a fundamental pillar of the national response at all levels of government. Communication professionals have demonstrated their value in helping leaders engage with internal and external audiences.

The recent COVID-19 Communications Advisory Panel report saw GCS collaborate with bodies such as the LGA and experts to look at the impact of COVID-19 on the work of professional communications. The recommendations in this report reflect our ambitions as public service communicators in building the communications profession. There are six areas I believe we should focus on, and I look forward to discussing them at the Public Service Communications Academy next week. 

1. Building a united profession

Just as the wider Civil Service has continued to focus on a renewed vision for the future, we have also been focusing on our own transformation of government communications through Reshaping GCS. I believe that this will create a stronger, united communication profession with better career paths, more effective campaigns and higher standards. There are eight strands to the programme, covering standards, campaigns, careers, inclusion, technology, leadership and efficiency as well as employment.

Managing the COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus the need for all public sector communicators to collaborate across discipline, team and organisational boundaries. What’s more, our audiences expect us to speak to them in a unified voice. 

United, our profession is even more effective. GCS Local, the regional arm of the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office communications team has, for example, ensured local public sector comms teams are better informed than ever about updates from central government, that deeper insight is being gathered from our stakeholders, and in turn we’ve learnt from the expertise and knowledge of council colleagues. 

By working more closely together, we can better support the implementation of policy and service priorities. Through the joined-up delivery of integrated campaigns, we can increase engagement with our target audiences through clear, consistent messaging, leading to better outcomes. I’m proud that local government and the COVID Comms Hub have worked together and learnt from each other throughout this crisis; we can build on this to achieve even better outcomes in future. 

2. Building digital capability

Increasingly, our target audiences are digital natives. As public sector communicators, we need to continually strengthen our digital capability, so that regardless of communications discipline, digital becomes embedded in our DNA. To ensure we reach the public, we all need to do digital – and do it well. 

The digital team behind the Prime Minister’s Twitter and Instagram channels, a recent example of success in this area, saw a photo of his congratulatory call with Joe Biden become the 10th most liked post of all time on Instagram. It received 13 million impressions across channels and was the second most ‘liked’ tweet of all world leaders. 

This shows we need to be where our audiences are. We need to design engaging digital content that works seamlessly with the adaptive tools people are using. It’s our duty to remove the barriers presented by inaccessible communications, and our ambition to deliver more innovative digital products.  

3. Building direct relationships

In an age of disinformation and diminished levels of trust, we need to deliver our messages to the public using the most direct route. Digital and social media make this easier to achieve. From video and live content to using owned and shared channels, we need to find new ways to cut through overcrowded, noisy online spaces. 

The daily COVID-19 press conferences have proved to be a powerful source of public information, with at least 5 million viewers on most days; the move to daily, televised Number 10 briefings from the New Year will allow for even more direct engagement with citizens. 

Whatever means of delivery we choose, we need to minimise opportunities for our messages to become diluted or distorted. Direct communication helps us to get our messages out more quickly, and creates better conditions for building trust and providing information about government services. 

4. Building understanding of how communication produces outcomes

As public sector communicators we are constantly pushing the boundaries on what excellence looks like – whether that’s developing a clearer understanding of how to make deeper connections with our audiences, how to test and adapt our strategies, or how to identify the lessons learned from each campaign. 

Simply put: we now have a far greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Intelligence is everything; and this is the purpose of our GCS Benchmarking Database. This post-campaign library, created by OmniGOV, supports analysis across the entire media buying framework. We now hold data on some 250 campaigns with a spend of over £500k since 2017 – a hugely valuable resource for building our understanding of what works when planning and implementing future campaigns. 

This, in turn, has helped us in a strategic approach to investing in order to save and become more efficient and effective. For example, the recent Money and Pension Service campaign that had an original budget of £4.79m. Through a rigorous review, that scrutinised best practice and a wealth of data from other campaigns, the campaign spend was reduced to £2.69m and the effectiveness increased, saving £2.1m.

Data will help us drive savings through fewer but better HMG campaigns, with a centralised budget to coordinate the work, procurement, use of agencies and resource on the Government’s key priorities that affect UK citizens. 

5. Building our knowledge

The skills we need as public sector communicators are rapidly changing. Automation and artificial intelligence are already replacing some aspects of communications. To future-proof our expertise, we need to constantly reinvent and upskill ourselves to use emerging technologies and adapt our practice.

This year I have focused my own professional development on leadership, commercial practice, digital and public data. The commercial element is an online course; my leadership learning is through reflection and feedback; and my public data development is through reading and learning, from David Spiegelhalter’s book on the ‘Art of Statistics’.

When times change, the way we learn and deliver development must also change. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdown in March, our GCS Professional Standards team needed to support 6,000 communicators across government. After surveying colleagues across GCS, the team digitised the learning offer within three weeks. More than 1,900 communicators signed up to e-learning between April and June 2020 this year, and 93% of attendees said they will be more effective in their job.

Looking to the future, we want to end up with a way of certifying and accrediting our communicators, as other professions do. It will build on our excellent professional development offer, assessed through our GCS Academy, and will be supported by the communications industry bodies. This brings us on par with other government functions and professions like Finance and HR. 

6. Building back better, together

This year has been marked by the tragic events that mobilised the Black Lives Matter movement, creating headlines and conversations around the world. These events have placed some uncomfortable truths at the forefront of our minds and challenged us all to be the change we want to see. I’d encourage all government communicators to read our Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan.

The GCS Black History Month campaign, united under the banner #OurHistoryOurHeroes, celebrated public servants and reached almost 8 million people. It inspired 135 user-generated posts over the month across Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram; examples included posts from schools throughout the country, as well as businesses in the UK and overseas.

As public sector communicators, we are uniquely positioned to bring people together. We can reach out to marginalised communities and place them front and centre of our campaigns, giving people a voice and using their stories to campaign for change. We can remove barriers, through accessible communications and campaigns. By creating inclusive cultures, we can contribute to a more diverse profession and a fairer society.

I hope you enjoy and take part in the Academy, and urge everyone to focus on their professional development all year round, building better communications practice by doing so. 

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