How to make friends and influence people in Government communications

Blog post by Suzanne Edmond

Tuesday 1 May 2018

The world of communications is changing. It means that building strong and trusted relationships with a range of stakeholders is more important than it’s ever been

With social media increasingly influencing the way people consume information, and the growing tendency for them to operate within their own echo chamber, getting messages through to the public is becoming even more challenging.

In the GCS Modern Comms Operating Model (MCOM), the importance of building alliances with partners and third parties to disseminate messages and share content has traditionally been captured as a brief description of ‘strategic engagement’. However over the past two years those of us working in the profession have endeavoured to go much further to define what we do and why it’s such an important pillar of communications.

Introducing the name “External Affairs” captures better what we do as we grow and professionalise the function. But it goes beyond a definition. The External Affairs Forum – established early last year – adopted this name to also build a sense of pride in the profession. It has allowed us to recruit people with the right experience, and helped us make connections with our counterparts in the world of public affairs, as we’ve looked to more proactively develop relationships.

External Affairs teams are responsible for building and maintaining relationships with a range of influential individuals and organisations. However, our purpose isn’t simply to get them to share our messages, but to listen to what they have to say. Genuine two-way engagement improves our understanding of what our audiences are thinking and creates true advocates in the longer term.

We build awareness and understanding of government policies by explaining what we’re trying to achieve away from the noise of the media. This dialogue can help achieve a better balance – encouraging supportive voices, but also answering concerns and mitigating criticism before the debate plays out in the public eye. Pre-briefing trusted partners under the same embargo as we do the media also allows them more time consider their response.

Of course, we work in close partnership with our colleagues in policy who regularly engage with a range of different individuals and organisations. Our role is not to micromanage every external conversation and meeting, but to coordinate high level and Ministerial engagement and to encourage best practice; seeing the bigger picture and considering the wider impact we can have.

By doing all this, we not only open up new and more direct channels of communication (many organisations are far better placed to speak to consumers and businesses), but demonstrate the true value that the Civil Service puts on listening to people’s views and working in partnership for the public benefit.

We are currently finalising our definition and operating model for External Affairs teams, which will ultimately be enshrined in MCOM 2.0 when it’s launched in the autumn. We would love to hear from you – any questions, comments or ideas – so please do email me on suzanne.edmond@dft.gov.uk.

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