UK government communications and PR leads the world

Too many people think of the public sector as being slow to modernise and that the best innovation comes from the private sector. In the public relations profession that couldn’t be farther from the truth as many of the best examples of modernised public relations I know come from the public sector. The UK’s Government Communication Service is at the forefront of this innovation, but you also see some amazing work and brilliant PR professionals in the NHS, local government and other areas of the public sector. Testament to the great work GCS does is that it has won more than 80 international and national awards over the last year.

The Government Communications Service (GCS) has just released figures that claim to show it has spent £330 million less last year compared to 2009-10, by making its campaigns more cost effective. However, while I think GCS has amazing people doing brilliant work, I’m dubious about the figures and claims.

For example it claims one of the ways it has made the savings is by “switching to lower and no cost channels, including digital and nudge techniques”. I’m intrigued to know what the ‘no cost’ channels are and how digital or nudge could possibly be included.

Neither digital or nudge techniques are ‘no cost’.

They can however be lower cost and far more cost effective than the traditional marketing and advertising campaigns used by successive Tory and Labour governments in the past. The reason they aren’t ‘no cost’ is the only reason digital and nudge techniques work is because the strategies are being created and implemented by talented people in the Government Communication Service. I don’t think any of them are working just for the love of doing public sector communications. In fact GCS pays very competitive salaries, in line with many PR and communications salaries in the private sector. That’s a good thing, but is hardly ‘no cost’.

Whenever I’m judging PR awards I always give a zero score to any entry that has zero for budget, except if it makes it clear it was done entirely by volunteers. Too often you see in-house teams making this mistake. Unless they account for their own salaries and overheads then they can’t possibly begin to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of their work.

The news release cites the Go Ultra Low and Superfast Broadband campaigns as examples of how partnering with the private sector has played a role in making savings. It claims half of the Go Ultra Low campaign was delivered at “no cost to government through joint funding from industry”. I presume what it actually means is that half of the external costs were met or by provided in kind by industry, as I suspect industry wasn’t contributing half of overhead and staff costs.

Likewise I’m sure the Superfast Broadband campaign run in partnership with the British Chambers of Commerce wasn’t really free, but that the chambers did most of the delivery of helping to get the message to more than 92,000 businesses.

The Government Internal Audit Agency has positively endorsed the savings methods and calculations. The data was collected from more than 80 organisations that provided detailed information on how much they had specifically spent on communications e.g. advertising, events, research, digital etc. While the figures for savings might be right, I very much doubt that any auditors would be willing to sign off on the ‘no cost’ claims being made in the news release and blog. It’s a shame that a fantastic news story about how the UK government has improved the cost effectiveness of its communications has been spoilt by using old-fashioned spin.

Give us data instead of spin

It’s also disappointing that you can’t actually assess this yourself as the actual data doesn’t appear to be available anywhere as neither the news release or the blog post has links to any of the source material. One of modernised communications evangelist Tom Foremski’s main criticisms of how the PR profession uses news releases is that too many consistently fail to provide sufficient background information or substantiate research claims by providing links to the source data. It’s a shame that GCS that is often a trail blazer in new PR has made this mistake.

Despite my criticisms the figures are very impressive and undoubtedly show how if public relations and communications is modernised it can become cost effective and deliver real business benefits.

Alex Aiken, Director of Government Communications, UK

Alex Aiken, executive director of government communications said:

“In the past, taxpayers’ money was too often spent on expensive and unnecessary marketing and advertising campaigns. We’ve put an end to that, and ensured that we track the implementation and effectiveness of everything we do.

Today’s figures are impressive, but we won’t stand still. That’s why we recently released our communications plan for the year ahead which commits us to delivering further value for taxpayer’s money and a more skilled, effective and focused service than ever before.”

Alex has done brilliant work in modernising how government does public relations and communications, but I wouldn’t agree that money in the past was spent on ‘unnecessary marketing and advertising campaigns’. I don’t think many of the campaigns from previous Tory or Labour governments were unnecessary, but I would agree that many of them could have been better and more cost-effective.

I’m also concerned that the focus is on cost-cutting, rather than improving cost-effectiveness. The problem with cost-cutting is that some very important communications activity can be cut or starved of resources. Cutting communications campaigns on things like public health and recycling can save money in the short-term, but ultimately lead to increased costs to government and society if people don’t do the things that the campaigns are designed to get them to do.

GCS provides best practice for modernised PR

The Government Communications Plan Alex refers to in his quote was released a few weeks ago and I’ve only studied it briefly so far. However, that is enough to know that the plan, like much of the work done by GCS, is a great example of professional public relations and communications work.

The Government Communication Service has great official guidance and best practice ‘How To’ guides on a wide range of public relations and communications including:

  • Continuing Professional Development
  • Measurement and evaluation
  • Social media
  • Campaign planning
  • Customer journey mapping
  • Social analytics
  • Using Twitter
  • Working with stakeholders
  • Writing a communications strategy

In the CIPR Twitter guide for MPs that I produced for the Speaker of the House of Commons Commission on Digital Democracy I referenced the GCS Twitter guide.

When I’m advising government communications and PR professionals overseas or running one of modernised PR training classes I often refer people to these published by GCS. Get in touch if you want a no obligations chat about how I can help you to modernise your public relations strategy, communications practices and make your PR team more effective.

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