Insights from a public sector media guru

By Chris Johnson

Tuesday July 20, 2021

parliament-house lawn
IP Australia’s Margaret Tregurtha discusses her career. (Image: Adobe/max blain)

In public sector communications, a change in government doesn’t have to mean a change in the way the work gets done. And it shouldn’t. At least that’s according to former public service media guru Dale Starr.

Over a career spanning more than three decades, Starr has worked for multiple federal government departments, tackling all facets of marketing, communications, public relations and media management.

He has had long and short stints being seconded to ministers’ offices and knows government media relations inside and out. Portfolios have included Transport, Infrastructure, Environment, Agriculture and Veterans’ Affairs. Most recently he spent eight years leading the Anzac Centenary national program for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

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Now retired from the APS but still consulting with his own outfit Starr Relations, he was more than happy to share some insights with Mandarin readers.

“In the comms area a change in government doesn’t necessarily mean a change in the way we work. It’s not political,” Starr states.

“My view is I could work for just about any government, and I have done so. I probably have my limits and if One Nation came to power, I probably would decline that opportunity.

Dale Starr

“But it’s really interesting. There are changes with every minister and every minister comes with a new media adviser. So it’s a matter of setting up a relationship and working with them.

“I think it’s pretty simple really. If anybody’s ever worked in a minister’s office, you know what it’s like. They need to get things done. If you’re supporting them from a departmental point of view, you need to help them do what they need to do.”

What if a minister tries to get the department to delve into the political realm? What if a minister demands that of departmental media?

“If a minister’s office wanted to put out a media release and it’s been political and they’ve wanted the department to do it, I’ve always held a strong line on that,” he says.

“It’s not in the department’s interests and it’s not in the media adviser’s interests, or the minister’s interests. Sometimes there have been some difficult conversations.

“There’s a line. If it’s crossed, it’s them doing it and it is clear it’s them. We in the department insist that it’s clear that the politics comes from them, not us.”

Being seconded to a minister’s office is another matter and requires a different approach to the role, but political independence can and should be maintained even under those circumstances, he insists.

“That’s a fascinating area actually,” Starr says.

“I’ve worked as acting media adviser for three different ministers. Going up there (to Parliament House), I was really surprised and impressed that on each of those occasions I‘ve never been asked going into those roles ‘what’s your political affiliation?’.

“So they’ve assumed that I’m going to be professional and I’m going to do the job. That’s a level of trust actually. And it’s a trust on both sides.

“It’s interesting, on one of those stints I ran into the secretary of the department I was seconded from and started to complain about the department. Then he gently reminded me where I still worked. Because you do get into that trap that you work very long hours and you work closely with minister.”

Starr says he has held some of the most rewarding jobs in the public service and he encourages anyone with skills in communication to consider working in that area.

But he insists that it’s not for everyone. And no one should be fooled into believing that public sector media and marketing is anything like the private sector.

“It’s been an absolutely fantastic career and the opportunities you get working in the public sector on some projects are incredible,” Starr says.

“I think there is one big difference between public and private sector, and it is that in government roles, you need to be able to do media, you need to be able to marketing, you need to be able to do public relations. Whereas in the private sector they specialise more. In  a big organisation you would have a director of public relations and a director of marketing. You’ve got to be more multi-skilled in the public sector.

“When it comes the make-up of teams – people do come with different skills and strengths and it’s about making the most of that. Not everybody is suited to working in a communications area and I think that’s one area where the public service has lost a bit.

“That public affairs structure is largely gone. What that means is that people come in and don’t have any formal qualifications or any great experience in that area. I think that’s a gap. No best practice organisation would employ a person who doesn’t have those skills.

“Just because you’ve got an interest in communications, doesn’t mean you’re going to be any good at doing it. That’s a challenge for the public service and I think it’s a great shame that the old public affairs structure has gone.

“I’ve seen huge changes over my time in the public service. There would probably be three big changes”

“I’ve seen huge changes over my time in the public service. There would probably be three big changes.

“One is the internet, with the impact of online communications. It has got to be the biggest change to society since the industrial revolution, without a shadow of a doubt. It’s changed the way we work, it’s changed the way we live and it’s changed, and it’s changed basically all aspects of life. I think mostly for good, which is unusual, but there probably a few down sides.

“There is enormous pressure because of the internet. We’re sadly in a world where facts are debatable. Facts are what they mean to the person looking at them. That makes life very difficult.

“The second change I think is the change in the profession itself. The communications profession. The change in the structures and the way we do business. Things like I’ve just mentioned when it comes to the building of teams and the public affairs structure.

“The third thing is the lack of scrutiny from really experienced professional journalists. Those who look at an issue and are already really informed on it before it’s become public. They know the history.

“Those journalists can really inform and also really hold the government to account. At the moment, not so many of them exist. A lot of those people with the historical knowledge of the issues aren’t around. They’ve taken early retirement, or they’ve gone on to do different things because the nature of their business has changed. With all due respect, you have so many journalists today who are wet behind the ears and don’t really know the hard questions to ask.”

Starr’s roles have been diverse and it’s what kept him loving going to work each day for so long.

With one appointment, he found himself in a marketing director role, and, unusually for the public service (at least it was a few years ago), it required generating revenue.

“So there were revenue targets each year,” he says. “The first year we started it was $15,000 and after three years I got it up to $750,000. I think people generally didn’t know what marketing was, but when we made $750,000 everybody got a new computer.

“They still didn’t know what marketing was, but they loved it. They knew they loved marketing … whatever that was.”

While Starr says public service communications and marketing is the best gig in the sector, he gained a new respect for human resource departments once the pandemic took hold.

“COVID is a terrible thing obviously, but it was fascinating at the same time,” he says.

“Processes changed, but you had to do the same thing. All of a sudden, you had people working from home and there were lots of zoom meetings. It was really important to keep the dynamic going.

“The genie was out of the bottle. Departments, for all of the right reasons, are generally quite slow. All of a sudden, everyone is having issues with their service providers. And I’m in Sydney while the team is in Canberra, and not a beat was skipped.

“Large kudos to the HR people. It was a huge commitment.

“But I would like to say, the comms area is best job there is. I’ve had some of the best jobs in the public service. If you think you are suited to that area, I’d personally encourage people to think about that as a career, because that’s something that will also be needed.

“Get formal qualifications, get as much experience as you can, get into roles and have a go at anything.

“One thing I like about it is you get response to what you’re doing almost immediately.”


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

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