Government communications ‘struggling’ to keep up in digital age, says new report

By on 19/01/2017
William Hague, former UK foreign secretary, in a Twitter Q&A (CC image courtesy of FCO Flickr)

Rapid technological change and growing distrust of political elites are creating “unprecedented difficulties” for government communications functions in their work supporting public policy, according to a new report by advertising and PR giant WPP.

‘The Leaders’ Report’, a global survey of government communications leaders published this week by WPP’s Government and Public Sector Practice, paints a picture of a sector struggling to live up to its historical role as a “key lever” of government alongside taxation, regulation and legislation.

On the one hand, says the report, politicians and policymakers frequently undervalue the role of communication in policy delivery, meaning it is typically an under-invested function of government that is seldom used to its full potential.

Meanwhile, the growth of digital media channels has led to a “fracturing” of audiences and broken the broad-brush broadcasting model typically used in government communications. This model is no longer appropriate in a world where messaging must be tailored to diverse groups, says the report. As one communications leader in a Western European country told WPP: “There is a heightened individualisation and we can no longer send a uniform message to the entire public. It’s not possible. It doesn’t work anymore.”

According to the report, only 25% of respondents in the survey said they tailor their messages to specific groups, with most struggling to move beyond “uniform messaging”.

The social media age has also made individuals more powerful, giving them unlimited access to information – some of it accurate, some of it not – and the ability to criticise and campaign rapidly, outpacing governments’ responses.

A compounding factor is the extent to which trust in the political establishment has been eroded; according to the report, 60% of citizens do not trust their government, further exacerbating the challenge of creating effective government messaging and limiting the opportunities for a two-way dialogue between governments and citizens.

Although the combination of these phenomena creates a challenging situation for government communications functions, says the report, it is possible for governments to develop sophisticated messaging that mixes “hyper-personalisation” with a strong sense of “civic community” – helping to rebuild trust and engagement among citizens.

This need for personalisation means there’s no simple route to achieving these ideals, says the report – but it identifies 10 qualities of “high-performing” government communication functions. These include having a clearly defined role and structure for communications; consistent messaging across government; clever use of data; and maintaining political impartiality in communication. Tweeting the report, Alex Aiken – the UK government’s head of communications – pointed to the need for “trust, skills and listening”.

The report warns that a failure to adapt will further undermine the status of communication as a government function, and limit the ability of governments to respond to the needs of citizens.

Adapting “will be no easy task, but government communication is a career chosen by exceptionally educated and motivated public servants and we have spoken with many of them during the course of this research,” the report concludes. “We believe they are up to this task and to playing an essential role in delivering effective public policy and good governance.”

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See also:

Matt Tee, chief executive of IPSO, UK: Exclusive Interview

Civil servants ‘wasting time’ producing unread online content

How Should Governments Best Use Twitter?

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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