Political communications in a networked world

Governments face special challenges in communicating authoritatively in a less hierarchical, more networked world. The British government’s communications team is all set on taking on that challenge.

As government communicators, our mission is to honestly and effectively communicate policies and publicise opportunities to improve the lives of citizens.

That is why one of our biggest campaigns, One You, encourages people to look after their health.

And it is why we communicate to explain how you can start a business, take up an apprenticeship or donate blood.

(Photo by M N on Unsplash)

The UK Government Communication Service (GCS) covers the 3,000 staff working in marketing, media and internal communications in 300 public agencies. Our 90 major campaigns, professional standards and shared vision of exceptional public service communication work are set out in the annual Government Communication Plan, whose implementation is tracked, assessed and evaluated throughout the year.

The challenge we faced

The UK has developed public service communication over 150 years, starting in the 1870s with posters to persuade people to make financial provision for their old age and in 2016 using high quality digital communication for the same goal. We learnt much along the way but it was clear that by 2010 our communication practice had become too expensive and poorly targeted. We didn’t have the scale of cohesive cross government work required to properly reach our audiences and this was evinced by the 800 government websites, 200 logos and £1 billion spent on government communications. Today we spend around half that sum, have one web platform (Gov.UK) and a single corporate identity system.

More importantly we have campaigns that offer people choices and information. Our housing campaign has provided ways to home ownership and our road safety campaigns help reduce accidents.

We have modernised our approach because we saw that society, media and technology was changing quickly and in ways that opened up new opportunities for communicators. People are less deferential and more likely to trust the views of their friends on Facebook, so we need to create content, particularly video and graphics, that is shareable. Media, print and online magazines remain a key focus for our work, but we needed to adapt to service the proliferation of channels. Technology offers new opportunities to citizen journalists but it also demands new skills from the public relations officer – to film, edit, post and promote video content, as well as traditional and essential writing skills.

For us, building a model of modern communications practice has required five steps:

1. Define the end state

My role is to develop and implement a communications strategy to support the priorities set by the prime minister and cabinet, manage the corporate team that co-ordinates government work and set professional standards. I believed that if we were going to be successful I needed to challenge my colleagues to deliver a higher quality of professional practice. With the group of directors of communication we defined our goal as providing an exceptional standard of public service communication effectively delivered and efficiently executed by educated communicators. And we emphasise the value we place on professional development. We wanted all our colleagues to demonstrate communications impact and value for money. We have focused on a campaigns model for communication, defining this as: “a planned sequence of communications and interactions that use a compelling narrative over time to deliver a defined and measurable outcome”. And to help people understand what we mean, we developed the mnemonic OASIS – Objective, Audience, Strategy, Implementation and Scoring (Evaluation) to impress upon all our teams how they should approach each communication problem.

2. Understand the future – as far as we can

We recognised how the world was changing so to understand our audiences and the opportunities better we commissioned a report, The Future of Public Service Communications. We drew together a wide ranging panel of experts from across the public sector, private industry and academia. The report’s conclusion can be summarised thus: As the pace of technology change will only quicken, professional communicators must adapt or become obsolete. Mastering skills of data utilisation, algorithms behaviour change and a more sophisticated grasp of marketing techniques will be key.

The report recommended that we put the following at the heart of our discipline:

  • Social marketing to nudge people – we have created a behavioural insights team which in addition to serving government now trades independently, and mandated that our campaigns follow the EAST principle – that they are easy, attractive, social and timely for our audiences.
  • Understanding of data – we are developing a real-time digital campaign dashboard and each of our main departments has a Performance Hub to share and assess data.
  • The ability to build alliances – we’ve put stakeholder engagement at the heart of our work, and recently we have worked with 90 civil society bodies to boost voter registration by two million.
  • The creation of compelling content – UK officials in Ukraine posted a graphic on Twitter to help Russia identify its own tanks when the Kremlin appeared ‘unclear’ about the location of some of its military hardware.

3. Create a Modern Communications Operating Model and a rigorous evaluation framework

The Future of Public Service Communications report provided a sound theoretical foundation but two frameworks launched in late 2015 provide the blueprint for UK government professional communication practice. MCOM sets out to unify our professional practice with four interrelated themes:

I. Media and campaigns: at the heart of the government communications team is a campaign’s capacity where managing good relationships with traditional media is allied with an understanding of the campaign goal and the range of communication techniques that can reach the audience.

II. Internal communication: we deliberating placed internal communication at the heart of the new model to emphasise now that staff engagement in many large organisations needs to be improved. Using the Engage for Success blueprint we said that staff need a compelling corporate story, an environment where their voice is heard and acted upon, truly engaging managers and the integrity that says the organisation does what it says it will do. We’ve created a strong community of internal communications professionals who are radically improving our staff engagement.

III. Stakeholder engagement: knowing who our most important partners, friends, and even detractors are is more important than ever. We have employed the discipline of mapping and understanding exactly who and where these ‘stakeholders’ are. This is only half the job – the real work is about building trusted relationships based on common purpose. Technology may be increasingly dominating our profession but we also need to build strong trusted relationships with others and be ready to engage directly with them.

IV. Strategic communication: effective planning and evaluation of our work goes to the heart of our drive to establish communications as a credible discipline that has parity with the other professions serving government. It is what lends the professional credibility that gives communicators the right to speak at the top decision-making level of any organisation.

To support this, the GCS first published its evaluation framework at the end of 2015 following consultation with an expert panel from the public and private sectors as well as academia.

“We wanted all our colleagues to demonstrate communication’s impact and value for money.”

4. Deliver public impact

Models and reports can set the standard but the test of our work is the campaigns we deliver. The annual Government Communications Plan allows scheduling of 25 priority campaigns in a coordinated way across government departments to reach targets audiences and its progress is reviewed each quarter by the Ministerial Board for communication.

One of our most successful projects has been the GREAT Britain Campaign. It was launched in late 2012 to promote the United Kingdom abroad by capitalising on the legacy potential of the 2012 Olympics.

The campaign involves the participation of a range of government departments and is active in 144 countries across the globe. It has a strong digital element, monthly evaluation and a skilled campaign team to manage the work. To date in return for a government investment of £100 million the campaign has secured a confirmed economic return to the country of £2billion.

5. Train and inspire communicators to lead

Leadership is at the heart of effective communications. We believe that good professional communicators will inspire and motivate those around them by virtue not just of their energy and commitment but their competence and grasp of the latest thinking. So continuous professional development lies at the heart of our mission. We provide 2,000 training places each year, focusing on campaign technique, digital communications and evaluation. Every member of the GCS is expected to complete four pieces of professional development each year but that is just the minimum. We have a series of successful leadership schemes from the Early Leaders programme for junior staff to our ‘Inspire Programme’, validated by a UK university for potential directors of communication. These programmes increase our capability but also the professionalism and reputation of communicators across government.


What I have set out above does not contain any silver bullets. It is common sense and for the greatest part made up of ideas with which all of us should be familiar.

It is however uncompromising in its requirement for rigour, discipline and the application of what has been proven to work. And it sets rigorous evaluation and evidence at the heart of what we do. It tells us that we have to embrace a new networked world where the old safety net of authority is vanishing. It also demands that all of us take responsibility for the continuous professional development of ourselves and our teams. Finally it calls for us to put our hearts into what we do by delivering leadership that inspires others to join us on a common mission.

The paradox of the modern communications challenge is that it requires of us a greater grasp of technology while requiring at the same time better interpersonal and leadership skills. If we can rise to this challenge while accepting that the world in which we communicate is a more chaotic place, we can raise our profession to a preeminent position in our organisations and a force ultimately for adding real value, building trust and improving lives.

Behind the One You campaign

One You is the first health campaign in England that talks to middle aged adults about all areas of their health. It encourages people to take part in an online quiz, designed to be fun which asks questions to get people to reappraise their health. On completion it provides personalised advice and links to tools like smoking cessation apps, alcohol trackers and meal suggestions.

The campaign launched in March 2016 with eight weeks of targeted, television, digital and outdoor advertising including social media based on audience research. It was amplified by PR and a nationwide coalition of partners including Asda, Slimming World, BBC, and Boots UK, as well as local public services; placing the brand at the heart of people’s day-to-day lives.

Over 20,000 people joined Slimming World alone through an exclusive One You offer, and over 150,000 people have taken the first steps towards their first 5K run by downloading the Couch to 5K app.

In the two months following launch, over one million people completed the quiz exceeding all targets set: early feedback suggests 93 per cent agreed it was important that One You offered support like this to help people stay healthy and 77 per cent said they had already made changes because of the feedback.

Alex Aiken

Alex Aiken is the executive director for government communications for the UK government. He was appointed in December 2012 and has been responsible for creating the Government Communications Service and developing cross-government campaigns. Between 2000 and 2012 he was director of communications and strategy for Westminster City Council, leading the policy, member services and communications teams. He served as part of the group that oversaw the implementation of the Tri-Borough Shared Services programme and established the Westco communications consultancy which works for public and private sector clients around the UK. He has been national secretary of LGcommunications and vice chairman of the Public Relations Consultants Association Council. He is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA). Before joining Westminster he worked in parliament and for Conservative central office, leading the party’s Campaigns Unit and the Press Office. He has trained and advised politicians and officials in countries and states around the world in the practice of government and communications.