Standing up for communications professionals

Photograph of Westminster from across the river showing Big Ben and parliament buildings

It’s not been a good week for Government communicators and public relations professionals in the UK. Our MD Chris Taylor takes issue with anonymous briefings about spin doctors, the plans to massively cut UK Government comms activity and the challenges ahead.

Imagine you’ve just spent the past four years working on the communications front line dealing with Brexit and then Covid-19 as an impartial civil servant working for the UK Government Communications Service (GCS).

Tough gig (yes, other people have even tougher ones I know). Then, imagine you’ve been told that actually you’re not a communications professional, you’re a mere “spin doctor” and you’re probably going to lose your job. Check out the details if you have a Financial Times subscription.

Is GCS still leading the way?

GCS is a beacon of best practice in our profession. It does some great work and sets high standards.

Even now, its Covid-19 Advisory Panel is researching the impact of the pandemic on the communication profession. The call for evidence closes on 17 July.

The pressures on GCS are huge. It delivers a massive volume of work and information. The team there make important decisions on a daily basis, balancing the political challenges and the need to remain impartial at all times.

It doesn’t always get things right. (Who does?) But its work makes a difference.

This reform is revolution, not evolution.

It’s not just the media, stupid

For the millionth time, good comms is not just about dealing with the media.

As others have pointed out, the No. 10 official who briefed the FT saying “it is very difficult to defend there now being more than 4,000 spin-doctors on the payroll” is way wide of the mark.

Media relations is a small but important part of the communications landscape. In some ways these proposals recognise that.

But the language being used publicly is unhelpful and doesn’t recognise the amazing and important job that many Government communicators have been doing.

Have we been here before?

Yes. In 2010 the newly elected coalition government disposed of the COI (Central Office of Information) – the Government’s centralised advertising arm.

This was part of austerity, but as with today, there was definitely a political agenda attached. The COI limped on to 2012, but a lot of big Government campaigns pretty much stopped overnight, and ad spend reduced dramatically.

What happened as a result of this? Unsurprisingly a lot of the behaviour changes the COI’s campaign were driving started to tail off.

Fast forward to 2014 and you get the creation of GCS.

A case for reform?

Governments need to communicate – if you want to read more about UK Government comms over the last 100 years then this blog from 2018 is a fascinating place to start

Is there a case for reform? Yes, undoubtedly. The move to centralise everyone under one GCS banner has merit. Overall the staffing numbers probably are too high. The media landscape is changing at the speed of light and facing huge pressures as a result.

And communications is not immune to all the other challenges that face the civil service in terms of recruiting and retaining the very best.

But this is a classic sledgehammer and nut case.

Sadly, there are likely to be very few winners.

Not those left behind in a decimated and demoralised workforce.

Not the UK public who are crying out for clear, consistent and believable information about Covid-19.

Not the wider business of Government which relies heavily on professional communicators to listen to and engage with the public.

Not the public relations and communications profession which has spent years moving away from and fighting against the ‘spin doctor’ tag.

Maybe the winners might be the ones that get out.

The move to White House style daily briefings will be fascinating. Let’s hope it does something to restore a sense of truth and clarity coming from Government.

Good luck everyone, thanks for reading.

Stay safe