Government communicators struggling to get message across
WPP report shows government approaches to communication not adapting to social media era
Government communications are falling behind in both technology and method, which is having a negative impact on the ability of the public to communicate policies and strategy, according to a new study from WPP.
Communications professionals in the government sector are struggling with senior leadership that does not understand social media, a lack of two-way communication with the public, and a lack of understanding of the importance of communications as a key lever of government, a survey conducted by the Government and Public Sector Practice of communications services group WPP found.
Three-quarters of those surveyed don't believe senior leadership understands social and digital media and three-quarters also said that the voice of the citizen is not taken into account in key decision making, while 85% say communication is not involved in policy delivery process. This is against a backdrop of only 40% of citizens expressing trust in their government.
The study, ‘The Future Of Government Communications' covered government communications leaders in 40 countries, and is intended to provide a comprehensive audit of existing practice, together with analysis of data on major trends, in government communication and their associated organisational drivers. The study included a confidential online survey of government communicators in 30 countries, and in-depth interview with government communications leaders in 20 countries and five multinational government organisations.
WPP highlighted that in the age of social media, citizens have unlimited access to information, are able to comment on issues and launch political campaigns quicker than government can respond, and can also air any issues through social media, regardless of accuracy. When combined with issues like the rise of populism and extremism, and a distrust of politicians, there is a pressing need for better communications and revised approaches to communications from government.
"Government communication leaders face unprecedented difficulties in responding to this wave of technological change and public dissatisfaction: audiences are increasingly heterogeneous, interconnected, and ever harder to reach," the report stated.
There are five main areas which present a challenge to government communications, according to WPP - Trust, Audience, Conversation, Capability and Influence.
A luck of trust in government means that individuals, businesses and other stakeholders are reluctant to engage with their government, and according to research by the OECD, even in countries with the highest levels of trust, one in four citizens do not trust their government is doing the right thing.
Fractured audiences, featuring many different stakeholders and groups, are necessitating the need for tailored communications, but only 25% are able to tailor their messages to citizens, with the rest relying on uniform communications, and half of government communications professionals surveyed said they do not understand social media.
Many organisations are struggling to hold two-way conversations with the public, and to engage with their stakeholders for feedback, with just 31% regarding citizen engagement as a priority and only 14% actually receiving training in public engagement.
In terms of capabilities, half of all government communicators report that they lack the skills and resources to do the job. There is a lack of skills in areas such as social media, data analysis, audience segmentation and citizen engagement, and with 43% of respondents having held their roles for ten year or more, they have not developed modern communications skills.
The low priority given to communications means that its influence is overlooked, and 60% of respondents don't measure the impact of communication against policy objectives, reducing the perceived importance of communication as a lever of government.
To improve the situation, the WPP report outlines ten requirements for government communication functions, including better strategic role and understanding, developing collaborative teams and skills, developing consistent communications and working across government, focus on the citizen and improving access to technology tools and data.
Philippa Clayre, executive director, Government & Public Sector Practice, WPP MENA, highlighted some of the core capabilities required by most high-performing government communicators including clear understanding of strategic marketing and communication functions with an ability to direct and apply; clear understanding of research methodologies, their relevance in evaluating communication outcomes, and how to gather then interpret measurements; clear understanding of the role of behaviour change communication and how to implement it, for effective policy outcomes; clear understanding of the mixed media landscape, its role and effect at relevant touch points with citizens; and demonstrable ability to develop, run, evaluate and optimise ‘brand management' programmes at scale, delivering on policy requirements.
The report gives examples of best practice in addressing the key challenge areas, Clayre added. Programs in South Africa to test values and beliefs in audience segmentation to gain better geographic and ethnic awareness; Estonia's efforts to communicate the value of it's e-identity card while addressing negative perceptions of eID schemes; the Australian state of Victoria's plans to open two-way communication over its 30-year infrastructure plan and the UK's Public Health England conducting in-depth measurement of the clinical results of a public cancer awareness campaign, all highlight how governments have improved their communications efforts.
Managing the large volume of communication created across different media, including social, is possible, Clayre said, and "begins with the policy framework modelling and subsequent planning, which leads to a clear messaging hierarchy and structure, and flow across appropriate channels at relevant touchpoints being deployed by communicators with relevant capabilities and training, embracing technology solutions for real time management, and potentially the incorporation of an AI infrastructure for further efficiency via feedback loops."
Government communicators will also need to develop six skills for the future, she added, including interaction with citizens directly on social media; production of high quality, rapid content; running long-term, strategic behaviour change communication campaigns; helping citizens access digital public services across multiple touchpoints; integrating communications across online and offline channels; and creating direct channels to engage with the public so that government can communicate with citizens without dependence on the ‘filter' of media.