Virginia Haussegger explains how government departments can better communicate with the public and media

By Shannon Jenkins

April 21, 2021

Almost half of public servants want a hybrid work structure. (Image: Adobe/NicoElNino)

Government departments should focus more on developing clear, concise communications that are tailored to specific audiences, and less on writing long and confusing press releases, according to communication specialist Virginia Haussegger.

Speaking to The Mandarin’s Chris Johnson and Melissa Coade ahead of a Canberra event this week, Haussegger has given her tips on how departments can communicate with the public and the media more effectively.

With the public becoming increasingly fragmented, Haussegger says it is crucial that government agencies deliver more tailored messages to specific groups of people.

“We live in a very individualised global society now. Despite it being global and we’re all connected, it’s also more individual. We’ve really curated our own tastes and we’re curating our own brand,” she says.

“So, communications need to respond to that a lot more by tapping into those very fragmented audiences, and delivering messages specifically for those targets.”

Be clear, and ditch the press releases

Haussegger has discouraged government departments from wasting their time and resources on writing and rewriting press releases that, a lot of the time, won’t get picked up by the media.

She says government press releases often use overly long sentences and long words, and are confusing. Further, journalists often won’t read the whole thing.

Haussegger says a better way of getting an important message out into the world is to pick up the phone and call reporters.

“Be really short, sharp, clear as to what [the story is] about, why your audience might be interested in it, what the pictures will be,” she says.

READ MORE: Governments should follow private sector when it comes to communications, comms expert says

Similarly, government websites should be easy to navigate and offer clear, simple messages and imagery.

“I’m working with a couple of statutory organisations at the moment and I find the websites so out of date and so difficult to navigate. They’ve clearly been designed by the brilliant brains within the organisation but not by comms people,” Haussegger says.

She says Australia should look at what the United Kingdom is doing in regard to communications, noting that the Johnson government recently released its communications plan for 2021-22.

“They actually have a public government communications service that sets out what the government narrative is, and it’s really clear, and it’s really simple, and the language is really consistent, and that feeds into all government departments,” Haussegger says.

“You look at the website and it’s kind of beautiful. It’s just so simple, really simple. Simple messages, simple images, [but] it’s not childish.

“I long for the day when the Australian government … has an overarching communications service that supports all government departments, all government communications, can feed into that and there is that consistency of imagery, of messaging, of tone, and certainly websites.”

Consistent dialogue builds trust

Due to bad publicity and negative feedback, departments have become more risk averse and more fearful when it comes to communicating with the media and the public, leading them to take safe options. Haussegger says agencies must be bold, take risks, and be creative in order to effectively deliver messages to the media and the public.

They should also avoid the approach of pushing out a message and then leaving it at that. Departments have to be prepared to listen to feedback, and need to engage in constant dialogue with the public in order to build trust.

“Discussing, but also sharing with them what you’re doing. The narrative has to be clear,” Haussegger says.

“If you’re doing that, then when things go wrong, they’re less destabilising. But when you don’t have that ongoing conversation … such that you’ve built up a certain level of trust with citizens, and then something does go wrong and there’s a panic to try and fix it or change it or shut it down, it actually of course makes it worse.”

She says members of the public can be forgiving when governments “stuff up”, so long as governments are honest.

“What they’re looking for is authenticity — and we overuse that word — but you know, citizens’ radar for bullshit and inauthenticity is massively powerful. A lot of communications fail to appreciate that, fail to acknowledge that, and tend to sometimes think of the citizen that they’re communicating to like they’re robots.”

READ MORE: Calls for government to drop the ‘spin’ to boost messaging


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