COVID-19 AND GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATIONS- WHEN THE WORLD REBOOTS, TODAY’S ACTIONS WILL DECIDE TOMORROW’S WINNERS

by Fiona Bartosch/19 May 2021/Category

The COVID pandemic has exposed cracks in the way that many governments communicate. Tomorrow’s winners will be those governments who have used the ongoing crisis to tackle systemic and institutional failings

In 2009 Warren Buffet said: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” He was, of course, referring to the high-risk follies of financial institutions exposed in the 2008 crash. Twelve years later and the COVID crisis has exposed the communication failings of many governments. Today’s naked swimmers haven’t been driven by high risk folly, but by institutional complacency.

Leading communications through COVID

As anyone who has led a government communication department will testify, the work is as rewarding as it is challenging. Few professions require as much intellectual rigour, resilience and agility as government communications. Balancing the high-pressure stakes and daily operational demands of protecting and advancing reputations, with building and developing high-performing teams, requires many years of experience and expertise.

In recent years, these challenges have been compounded by the rapid, and seemingly exponential revolution in communications technology: changes which are having a profound effect on the way communication functions are designed, how they operate and how they perform. And it’s not just the technology that is changing. Stakeholders are changing too: becoming more global, more interconnected and more demanding. Government communication teams now must increasingly engage with a much broader global matrix of stakeholders to drive enhanced transparency; to focus on proactive engagement and dialogue; to build partnerships and relationships; to articulate with clarity how their Ministries are driving solutions for global and local challenges. Fast-paced, authentic, engaging digital communication has replaced traditional methods. Monologues through analogue channels are no longer an accepted means of communicating a message. Influence through genuine third-party advocacy is now key.

Building and developing high-performing teams is something about which most communication leaders are rightly incredibly passionate. But as every good leader knows all too well, there are no shortcuts to collective experience. High-performing teams require a combination of empathy, mentoring and coaching, patience and measured risk-taking, over time – cascaded through inspiring line managers, who are working under extraordinary pressures themselves.

Every government communication department faces these challenges on a daily basis. So, amidst the recent social and economic turmoil, why would any government communications leader invest in capacity building? Lessons from leading government functions suggest an obvious answer.

New Zealand: the untold story

Much has been written about Prime Minister Ardern’s personal qualities in leading her nation with gravitas, openness and compassion. But this assessment overlooks a less exciting but more instructive story: the systematic transformation of the New Zealand Government’s communications operation.

Two years ago, data emerged showing that communications functions within the New Zealand government had doubled in size. The private sector complained that this was draining talent from an already small pool of communications professionals. Tax payers challenged the value for money.

When the government was accused of “creating a spin machine”, no less than eight ministries went on record to defend the expansion of their communications functions. All were unapologetic: they argued that any modern government must have highly professional communications operations that can influence progressive change at home and abroad and respond effectively to a fast-moving global environment.

Needless to say, these statements were cogent, consistent and backed up by data: the communications machine was working.

Since 2017, little apparent progress has been made against the New Zealand government’s election pledges to reduce child poverty, build more public housing, and tackle income and wealth inequality. Yet in 2020, Prime Minister Ardern secured a landslide victory in the polls to secure her second term. Over the same period, her decisive COVID pandemic response has led to New Zealand becoming the fastest-improving nation in the Global Soft Power Index– up six places from 2020. If this successfully translates into a FDI-led economic bounce , Prime Minister Ardern’s domestic challenges will have been transformed from the most unlikely of sources.

What can other leaders learn from this?

Prime Minister Ardern possesses many unique and charismatic leadership qualities. But it was also her government’s foresight and wider investment in the transformation of their communications capacity that has played a major role in her party’s success. The New Zealand government now has the capability to effectively engage with both its citizens and with its global stakeholders; it is able to actively influence change and set its international agenda amidst a uniquely challenging global environment. And it’s a casestudy that can- and should- be adapted much more widely.

The UK: where did it all go wrong… or did it?

Hard lessons are being learnt in the UK. The UK is widely regarded as the world’s ‘gold standard’ for government communications. But since the onset of the COVID crisis, the UK has been plagued by accusations that the tardiness- and lack of cogency- in its response compounded the issues, resulting in many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Whitehall’s crisis communications machine was activated early on. Behind the daily media briefings, a massive organisational mobilisation took place. The No10 “grid” operation maintained military levels of discipline. The UK government’s 4,500 communications staff assigned media relations, digital, internal and stakeholder engagement specialists to the COVID response. Its Rapid Response Unit (RRU) worked around the clock to tackle misinformation, with the military and security services monitoring malign actors. Seasoned directors found themselves in junior roles helping newly unemployed benefits- claimants process their applications, in addition to delivering virtual masterclasses to furloughed communications staff from the private sector.

So – despite all of this – how did the world’s most sophisticated government communications operation fail on so many levels? Or did it?

Despite its rapid and initially effective communications approach, the government’s response was soon blighted by political dissonence, a series of high-profile political scandals, the hospitalisation of the Prime Minister, a mounting crisis in care homes. Her Majesty the Queen stepped in to reassure the nation with a rare public address. Global approval rankings for the government collapsed.

But during these challenging months in 2020, the government doubled-down on communications: introducing a set of wider reforms to drive institutional capacity and capability within Whitehall. It invested in improvement programmes, including launching a major initiative to upskill communications professionals through a new remote-learning academy and introduced a “Development Award” initiative to recognise the achievements of government communications professionals.

The results have been transformative. Despite its COVID challenges, the recent local elections in the UK returned massive support for the Prime Minister’s party. Many commentators have eulogised over the “vaccine bounce”, or the UK’s high risk- high return vaccine negotiation strategy. But these ignore the more interesting communications narrative. In addition to its daily operational work, the government communications teams delivered a significant strategic communications victory. It initiated a major locally-led public campaign that mobilized armies of willing, unpaid volunteer stewards, vaccinators and community officers to drive the UK’s vaccination programme. Driven by purpose, not profit, the modern day Home Guard were the most convincing of vaccine champions.  After a year in isolation, these everyday heroes were delivering the rarest of emotions: hope.

And when research revealed the highest levels of vaccine skepticism existed amongst higher-risk communities, the government rapidly engaged trusted, high-profile figures to promote the vaccination drive from their own social media channels. Respected behavioural scientist Professor Susan Mitchie also joined the Government’s SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), whose work is baked in to all public compliance campaigns, bridging policy to audience outcomes.

Crucially, as with New Zealand, this work was driven from the highest levels of the UK government who rightly continue to recognise that communication and engagement are crucial levers of good government.

Now is the opportunity to reboot

The COVID pandemic has precipitated a seminal revision in how governments view communications. Efficient and effective communications has an incalculable value. But it has taken the world’s worst pandemic in over a century for this to be recognised.

Nobody can yet predict quite how the world will remerge from COVID. What is clear however, is that governments will require transformational change in their communications.

In an increasingly fragmented and complex 24/7 media environment- and amid the continued global uncertainty- governments need communications functions that are equipped and empowered to communicate effectively. Whomever the audience and whatever the challenge, they need well-drilled operations that inform, influence and persuade with professional sophistication and collective credibility.

New Zealand is already one step ahead. The UK is delivering on its plans. But outside these two governments, institutional change has been more muted. Yet for government communications functions there is no better time to review and reboot. Given the uniquely challenging environment, every government should be reflecting on its capacity to effectively deliver, now and in the future:

  1. Are staff clear on their role in a crisis? In strong communications functions, staff at all levels are clear on crisis protocol. Using a COVID response as an example, what does this look like in practice? What 24/7 systems, policies and processes are in place across all relevant entities?

 

  1. Are audiences – or are tactics – driving communications? The most sophisticated operations recognise that civil society– mobilised, engaged and empowered – are often the most powerful advocates. Whether driving public compliance, explaining policies or supporting the operational effectiveness of public services, communications experts start with audiences – not tactics.

 

  1. What professional standards are in place? Confident staff see themselves as communications experts, not administrators. Have you reviewed best practice standards, frameworks and guidance? What training is mandated and how is excellence rewarded? What does continuous professional development (CPD) look like?

 

  1. Are staff clear on purpose? This should go without saying, but employees who aren’t clear on your organisation’s purpose are particularly ill-equipped to work in communications. Case studies that demonstrate success can challenge how this is measured in relation to organisational outcomes.

 

  1. Does your communications operating model help or hinder? Communications dislocation and structural fragmentation go hand in hand. The strongest government operations bring all communications functions together as one profession, under one purpose.
  1. Has continous improvement been neglected? Advanced government communications functions run continuous, 2-5 years programmes of improvement, under a governance framework that includes respected subject matter experts. If your communications function doesn’t have this, start with a frank assessment of ambition against current capacity, including strengths, skills, standards, systems and processes.

 

Any leader knows that today’s actions will decide tomorrow’s winners: in the race to the top, risk aversion is the greatest threat of all. COVID-19 could prove to be the catalyst for change that many public institutions need.

 

About the author

Fiona Bartosch leads Consulum’s Capacity Building Practice. She joined Consulum from the UK Prime Minister’s Office & Cabinet Office Communications, bringing more than two decades of service in the government, corporate sector and the BBC. She has built and led high performance teams in a career spanning organisational transformation and communications, including leading major initiatives to modernise UK Government communications.

Since joining Consulum she has led capacity audits and improvement programmes for a range of ministries and authorities around the world.

Consulum Capacity Building Practice

Consulum’s Capacity Building Practice designs and delivers comprehensive programmes to assess, design and transform communications operations around the world. Our organisational effectiveness specialists are committed to excellence, commitment, discretion, collaboration, collegiality and honesty. We do not disclose work with third parties. To discuss whether Consulum can build or strengthen your function, get in touch with Fiona Bartosch [email protected]

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