'It's OK to talk to bloggers', and other things Whitehall eventually got right

By Harley Dennett

February 25, 2016

Vlogger Nikkie in the Don't Make Up and Drive campaign
Vlogger Nikkie in the Don’t Make Up and Drive campaign

The above image is make-up vlogger Nikkie in one the United Kingdom’s most viral public safety campaigns — Don’t Make-Up and Drive — but the YouTube sensation wasn’t the brainchild of a government agency. Rather, this campaign by Volkswagen was something of a wake-up call not just for drivers, but also public communication officials.

The UK’s then deputy director of government communications Sean Larkins says working in online channels was something officials and ministers were too scared to do themselves at first, but eventually came to appreciate that cutting through meant accepting where the public now spent their time.

“There’s never been a government policy that’s been successfully delivered without good engagement with the public.”

Larkins, who is now a director with global communications firm WPP, is in Australia this month talking about his experience setting up and running the UK Government Communication Service and how those lessons could be blended with Australia’s successes.

A new prime minister and a new coalition government agreement — a novelty for UK’s civil servants — got the ball rolling on what would be the biggest experiment in Britain’s public communications since the creation of the royal broadcast.

The GCS experiment began when the incoming PM, David Cameron, asked three awkward questions. How many officials are working in communications? What does it cost? Does it work?

Larkins says they couldn’t answer those questions. Many of the people who called themselves communications officials were simply displaced civil servants whose agencies didn’t know where else to put them; they stopped counting the cumulative costs somewhere around AUD$1 billion; and the efficacy data just wasn’t there.

They couldn’t demonstrate return on investment so they set about resolving the most pressing problem — a lack of meaningful data of their communications efficacy — by learning once and for all what would happen if they simple stopped doing what they were doing; don’t spend any money on communications. So the first year of the David Cameron government, that’s what they did. Larkins told The Mandarin that first year, almost as a living experiment, was incredibly helpful:

Sean Larkins
Sean Larkins

“Because did the world stop turning? No. That probably upset everyone working in government communications. I could fall under a bus and the world doesn’t stop turning. It enabled us to build evidence where communications played a key role. Once we got politicians to realise that when communications is done well, will deliver what you need it to deliver, that was the key thing for us, in terms of building trust.”

Of course, the global financial crisis soon hit and they needed to figure out the right way to communicate austerity necessity. They turned the tap back on slowly, following a roadmap of the five-year agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and what they wanted to achieve.

“Some of the struggles we had were less around the big picture stuff, strategy and coordination, but the fact politicians loved to be the front page the Daily Telegraph or The Times or the Daily Mail, which has an ever decreasing audience and trying to encourage politicians and public servants that actually it’s OK to talk to bloggers. Doing something online has better cut-through than just an article that’s on newspaper for half a day, or read at the breakfast table then thrown away.”

Changing attitudes to traditional versus new channels is all about providing the evidence, Larkins says.

Sharable content, like the Nikkie video below, embracing the power of storytelling through relevant and personalised messages are the methods the evidence says are now more effective than a high cost newspaper or prime time television campaign. Fractured audiences mean the easy solution of throwing money at an ad during Coronation Street just doesn’t cut it anymore.

“One of the things the WPP Government Practice does is share best practice around the world. We become more outward looking. Some of the Australian states do fantastic public communications and they are much more culturally in-tune with how people feel. [The British] tend to be more risk averse.”

In Larkins’s presentation to local communications officials he cites the NSW anti-speeding campaign “No one thinks big of you” and Australia’s many health and behaviour campaigns like Queensland’s @_melanoma skin cancer prevention that tags users who upload images of themselves sunbaking to social media with a truly creepy message that melanoma like what they’re doing and is coming to see them soon. “I genuinely think Australia does this much better than the UK.”

Acting like professionals

Another key thing the GCS did to clean up the UK government communications was take control of deciding who was, and who wasn’t going to be a communications officer.

“We had over 7000 people who were allegedly doing communications,” Larkins says. “There were a lot of people who had no communications training, there was no sense of what it means to be a profession.

“There’s never been a government policy that’s been successfully delivered without good engagement with the public. Therefore, we should be as important a role, as government legal services or whatever. When you pare back government, what does it do? It legislates, it regulates, it taxes, it communicates. Sometimes communicating can be the quickest option and it can also be the easiest option.”

Strict control over the profession of government communications was given to the GCS, which demanded anyone calling themselves a communications official had to meet competency requirements within two years or find themselves another line of work.

They also stopped ministries talking over each other. Department’s campaigns were now coordinated through the GCS so they weren’t driving up the cost of advertising by bidding against each other for the same airtime.

“We brought in the discipline you’d see in any private sector organisation. We introduced a relatively small, about 30 people, head office function, which reported into the Prime Minister’s Office to coordinate and set the agenda and make sure we didn’t repeat the silly things that happened in the past.

“The shift is trying to change what we’re communicating, from what the government thinks is important, to how do we frame that in what the citizen is interested in?”

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