The benefits of Leo’s new SCU

Leo Varadkar’s decision to modify the Government’s communications structure has raised a few eyebrows in certain circles of the media and political classes. Some think the Taoiseach intends to exploit a taxpayer-funded service for political gain, with a loyal cabal of spin-doctors churning out pro-party, pro-Leo messages.

Let’s park the politics and the cynicism for a second. Just as it matters for a business and its stakeholders or a brand and its consumers, how the Government communicates with its citizens and positions Ireland in the world is crucial.

The reality of the Government’s communications today is that it is not structured or executed in a way that allows messages to be conveyed in a meaningful way.

I speak from experience: over 80% of my time as a government adviser was spent firefighting and managing the issue of the moment.

This is a problem. To this day, proactive, long-term strategic communication is put on the backburner. Communicating the benefits of new policies and positioning Ireland in the minds of international decision-makers either happens sporadically and through traditional channels, or falls on the wayside completely.

When you stop and consider how radically different the communications landscape is today compared to even five years ago, and how scattered and opinionated audiences are, it’s clear that a change in how the Government talks to the public is long overdue.

As the Government’s Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) begins its work, here are five things it should consider to make the Government a more effective communicator:

1. Centralise the advisers

Currently, each minister gets their own group of special advisers. This does little for cohesion and integration: instead of being focused on the Government as a whole, advisers, understandably, go native, fighting for their boss and department rather than the national interest.

Let’s do away with this structure and centralise these advisory teams into a single cross-Government strategic unit. Assign advisers to particular briefs rather than ministers and task departmental press officers with managing everyday operational tasks.

2. Embrace big data

We live in an era of big data, yet most businesses and organisations struggle to get a grip on it. The Government is no different.

The use of big data in government communications is mostly untrodden territory in Ireland, but the tools to make it a reality are out there. With geolocation, demographic profiling and sentiment analysis, the Government can target its messages more effectively, spot trends and anticipate crises before they happen. This data-led strategy not only saves money, but reduces the chance of communications campaigns failing to resonate with an audience. Childcare, flooding, and St Patrick’s Day global are just some domestic and international topics that could be better communicated with big data.

3. Fully embrace social and digital

In today’s world, social and digital cannot be siloed off from a communications strategy. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are as important as newspapers, television and prime-time radio slots, and provide immediate, actionable feedback. The ability to directly engage, with no filter, is hugely advantageous. It gives more control and tangible measurement.

Start-ups across the country and abroad are using technology to streamline the way governments communicate with citizens. The SCU should prioritise building relationship with these businesses to drive innovation.

4. Consider the use of influencers

Few want a senior marketing manager or a chief executive to sell them a new product, and that’s why brands are increasingly embracing influencers and personalities to establish a common ground with their customers.

The Government should consider implementing their own version of the same strategy. No matter the overwhelming benefits of a new policy or public service, without a relatable spokesperson, it’s a difficult sell.

5. Have an opinion

One of the reasons certain political figures succeed is because they are who they are. They make their own rules, take risks and have opinions.

Rehearsed, overly polished authority figures are increasingly going out of fashion. They do little to enthuse the public: as recent elections on either side of the Irish Sea have demonstrated, reading off the PR script and robotically repeating slogans returned governments on flimsy terms. Leaders – political and otherwise – need to build an engaging, clear vision and sell it boldly and persistently.