Government communication – the real problems

The problem with most government communication is that, however skilled the public service communicator, the politicians and their minders constantly get in the way.

Ministers tend to think the answer is advertising, paid for by the taxpayer, despite the overwhelming evidence that government advertising is regarded by the public extremely cynically. Needless to say the ad agencies and research companies involved in these campaigns are reluctant to share that reality with their clients.

With Ministerial minders the problem is a bit different. Just as the public sector has been gutted, and there are few people left brave enough to offer fearless advice, so experienced communicators are overruled on issues management and strategic plans by Ministerial media advisors whose first priority is the dead tree sector of the media. While political parties are more concerned about social media and face to face communications Ministerial offices are still populated by representatives of that small minority of the population – readers of print media and consumers of free-to-air television and radio.

Sadly they are also representative of a very large group of people – ex-journalists. Indeed, journalists at the blog’s local paper, The Age, have been on strike for several days and, tragically, it is hard to see what the impact is. The absence of people such as Peter Martin (the only journalist who has managed to get a real handle on what the Turnbull government might do in the Budget), Ross Gittins and Adele Ferguson is depressing. But old yarns; longer form material which was probably once spiked; and, material from other newspapers (all of which are infinitely more interesting than speculation about when the next election will be held) get a run when desperate management people are forced to fill the holes left by striking journos.  Sadly the management people probably have little idea that the stuff they are using as fillers might be pointers to how to make the print editions more engaging.

However, an opportunity for government communicators to learn  techniques for fighting back is going to be provided by Professor Anne Gregory in a Masterclass on the changing role of the government communicator. Anne is a remarkable academic, who is not only internationally recognised, but has also advanced the industry’s body of professional knowledge and works for the UK Cabinet Office developing capabilities in government communication services. Previous blogs have reviewed her books and presentations which are all well worth looking at.

The Masterclass rationale is: “The political environment has seen radical change in the past few years. Fringe political parties have become mainstream and mainstream parties are finding that the electorate is disengaging with them and their politics. At the same time the communication function in Government is finding itself shut out of decision-making with both politicians and policy using it as a means to deliver their messages rather than an intelligence network that can test the legitimacy of these decisions and their implications.”

The Masterclass purposes are to introduce a better way of thinking about government communication, in particular, in terms of how communication can shape strategy and decision-making in a context where accountability and transparency are important. Most importantly, the Masterclass focusses on how strategic planning can be aligned with policy and communication. RMIT, where Anne is an Adjunct Professor as well as holding her UK Chair, is presenting the Masterclass on Friday April 29 and Saturday April 30. For more information, and bookings, go to

Anne has also undertaken significant research on what senior communicators – in both the private and public sector – actually do. For more on this see  On May 6 and 7 she will be presenting another RMIT Masterclass on stakeholder engagement for the corporate sector. This Masterclass rationale is: “The corporate world has changed significantly. No longer can senior executives assume that their organisations have a right to exist and prospect as long as they act within the law. New forms of power and accountability mean they have to think very differently about what they say, how they behave and how they deal with stakeholders in order to ‘maintain their licence to operate’.”

Both courses “will feature practical examples and will end with a long practical challenge that will require participants to put their learning into action.” The cost for each is $895 which is a bargain given the quality of the presenter and the research and practical experience she brings to bear.

…. and speaking of government advertising The Economist (12 March 2016) revealed that the UK government had spent 27,000 pounds placing ads on Facebook reminding people about tax commitments. Facebook, in 2014, paid just 4,300 pounds in UK corporate tax. No doubt when the Turnbull Government cuts company tax in the forthcoming budget they will also spend more on social media advertising than the companies they advertise with pay in corporate tax in Australia.