The challenge facing government communicators

Blog post by Alex Aiken

Thursday 13 December 2018

Today’s media landscape and communications environment is constantly evolving. While this brings opportunities for communicators, there are also new challenges.

Alex Aiken

We’ve seen disinformation campaigns try to exploit divisions in our societies in an attempt to create confusion and discord. Technological advances continue to change the way audiences receive and understand information and act on that information. With the rapid pace of economic and societal change, communicators find it difficult to keep abreast of the latest trends. And no communicators need to work harder than those in government.

These trends challenge traditional approaches and transcend international borders. That is why I am pleased to join with the Club of Venice to welcome Europe’s leading government communicators together in London on 14 December for the “Club of Venice Seminar: Truth, Trends, and Tech.”

Since its founding in 1986, the Club of Venice has offered a sanctuary for free expression and exchange of ideas for leading government communicators across Europe. The Club’s purpose is to stimulate exchange of information and experience in all aspects of public information and communications. The Club of Venice has offered an informal space for discussions and debates about communications trends and challenges, as well as our professional approach. Its members are the leading public service communicators in Europe.

As government communicators, our role is to inform, explain, and engage the public we serve as well as to inform the policy debate. We have a critical role to play in helping the government find solutions to meet the public’s need. I’m looking forward to hearing the perspective of my colleagues across Europe. As Erik den Hoedt, Director of the Public Information and Communication Office of the Netherlands notes “Growing discontent and uncertainty in our societies. How to respond? Take the concerns of our citizens seriously, don’t patronise, and show the dilemmas government is facing.” The mission for government communications, set out by my predecessor, Kenneth Grubb, over 70 years ago rings true today: “Information services …are a recognition of a certain maturity in a democracy. They testify to a society where facts are essential to the formation of views, where prejudice is to be combated by reason and where policies should be explained if they are to be understood”.

We can draw strength from our history, but the UK Government Communications Service (GCS) is changing and improving our approach. We created the Accelerate programme, a two year skills transformation programme, to enable UK government communicators to be the most advanced digital communicators in the world. In collaboration with Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), GCS Knowledge and Capability Unit (GCS International) brings our best communications expertise to governments and public institutions to help them to improve their communications. And we welcome communicators from other allied countries to join us and learn from them, most effectively in the work of the Global Coalition against Daesh.

We have had some success — in the face of Russia’s disinformation campaign after the incidents in Salisbury and Amesbury, with the over 40 false narratives circulated with deliberate intent to confuse the situation, we stuck to the facts, focusing on building respect and winning the trust of our audiences rather than rebutting every false Russian narrative.

We’ve tapped expertise outside of government to bring the latest knowledge and skills to improve our collective efforts. “In this age of disinformation, where governments are under attack at an unprecedented rate, it can feel as though digital channels are making citizens harder to engage with“ Iain Bundred from WPP says. “In fact, there has never been a better time to reach our target audiences and meet their personalised needs at scale. We need to broadcast less and listen more, be present on the channels that they use and deliver something genuinely valuable to their lives.”

Fiona Bartosch from GCS worked with WPP to provide guidance. She says “As communicators our purpose is straightforward: deliver world-class communications. But in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing landscape, our challenge is to not merely keep up with the pace of change, but to actively lead the way. From future proofing the workforce to factoring the rise of voice activation, five trends in communications is here to help.” When I read this report, I’m struck by how much it captures what I see my team confront everyday.

In the year ahead, a government communicator’s job will be more important than ever. I look forward to finding ways we can help each other to deliver our mission of serving the public better. With common interests and values, our collaboration with European partners is essential to share lessons learned as a global network of communicators.

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