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The Power of Good Communications

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One of the Government’s most contentious initiatives since June, the creation of the Strategic Communications Unit is a smart move and long overdue, writes Cian Connaughton.

Opposition party claims that the Government’s recently formed Strategic Communications Unit is a propaganda machine are both mischievous and misinformed.

On the contrary, the new office will ensure that Government communications are integrated, more effective and better understood – a move that should strengthen democracy. The new unit will perform several functions, the first of which will be streamlining communications for citizens.

There is a clear case for taking a more integrated and hopefully productive approach to communicating about what the Government is doing.

Most citizens have poor levels of awareness of many important matters ranging from Government spending to their entitlements. How many of us could say with any degree of accuracy what the €62 billion that makes up next year’s Budget will be spent on?

So, there is a clear case for taking a more integrated and hopefully productive approach to communicating about what the Government is doing. The unit’s second task will be to run major cross-Government campaigns.

Some of the work that it will undertake will be communicating about some of the Government’s biggest upcoming initiatives – the Ten-Year Capital Plan and the National Children’s Hospital. These are both projects that involve Billions of state investment across a number of Government departments. If ever there was a reason for maximising the integration of communications, these crucial projects are it.

Finally, the new unit will improve communications across all parts of Government and raise the level of integration between people in communications roles within the public service.

The Irish public service has roughly 750 people working in such roles at an annual cost of €170 million. This is a drop in the ocean if you consider that 360,000 are currently employed in the wider public service.

To make sure the taxpayer is getting maximum value for money, it makes sense that this communications work should be co-ordinated to the greatest extent possible.

It’s also worth noting that the Strategic Communications Unit will report in to the Government Secretary Martin Fraser and not Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. This should ensure that its activities will be focussed on non-party political communications.

The Unified Approach

Overall, the unit has huge potential to further improve the quality of Government communication campaigns and increase public understanding of major spending programmes – clearly a good thing.

A unified approach to Government communications has been a great success in the UK where Alex Aiken is the Executive Director of Government Communications.

He oversaw over 90 Government communications campaigns on a diverse range of topics including modern day slavery, tourism and switching energy providers. Crucially, he makes sure the work of the 7,000 communications professionals in the UK public service is as co-ordinated as possible.

One very successful change the UK office has overseen is the merging of all UK Government websites in to one site www.gov.uk.

This unified approach is common to many other EU and OECD countries, including the US and the Netherlands.

It’s worth remembering also that previous Irish Governments were heavily criticised for not paying enough attention to the importance of communicating with citizens, particularly when crisis situations started to emerge.

Communications is Not a Luxury

The bottom line is that good communications, particularly from Government, is not a luxury nor is it a choice. The Irish people deserve good quality effective communication and that requires professionals, structures and a planned approach.

While setting up the Strategic Communications Unit up was an undoubtedly smart move, the communications around its establishment were a lot less successful.

It made political sense to claim that the unit would be cost neutral. However, it would have been wiser for the Taoiseach to have refrained from such commitments until he was surer of his numbers. If this wasn’t possible, he should have been able to put forward a clearer narrative from the start about the unit’s rationale and requirements.

Having said that, many of the charges being levelled at the SCU are merely political points scoring. What they show clearly is that the valuable work of communications and public relations professionals is still not as appreciated, understood or recognised as it should be.

There is always more than a little irony that criticisms of spend on communications are generally written and issued by the communications units of the political parties.

While communications professionals have plenty of work to do showing the value of our work, the establishment of the Strategic Communications Unit is to be welcomed. It is also proof that the power of communications is recognised by far more people than you’d think.

Cian Connaughton is president of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, the representative body for Ireland’s communications profession and a senior client director with MKC Communications.

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ October 2017)© to order back issues please call 016611660