The contribution of public sector communications professionals in a crisis

At least one commentator has noted that Covid-19 has given us a communications master class[1].  Many have said that the communications effort has been intrinsic to New Zealand’s success during the COVID-19 crisis.

The focus has often been on the personal qualities of the Prime Minister and the Director General of Health. There is little doubt about the effectiveness of these two leaders as communicators, and that their effectiveness has relied very much on the team around them.

We saw them carefully reading the speeches written for them, consistent, word by word, phrase by phrase to get the right tone, to give clear information that people wanted and needed.

Public sector communications professionals played a positive role in these last weeks

They helped create the messages

Public sector communications professionals helped create their speeches, collated the data they needed, helped shape the order, found the right phrases and tone to make the messages accessible

These phrases included “be kind”, “the team of 5 million”, “stay home, save lives”, “stay in your bubble”. We used these phrases in all conversations.  In criticism, people have called them slogans. Are they? Or are they simple guidelines to shape our behaviour?

The messages were authentic. It almost sounded as if Ms Ardern and Dr Bloomfield invented them. But did they? Public sector communications professionals will have helped to develop them.  They would have checked that they would be useful and would work, by testing them with New Zealanders.

They helped spread the messages.

Public sector communications professionals gathered and checked the data. Whether in central or local governments, Crown Entities, Health and Education networks, they circulated this information; they sent it down and across many layers so that it was as consistent as possible. They did this in extremely tight timeframes. There was little sign of those oft-talked-about silos of different agencies and different sectors. They helped condense down the complexity into straightforward messages which made sense to people.

They gave an important service to New Zealanders

We should give credit where it is due. They helped people know what was happening, why it was happening, why decisions were made, what people should do and what they could expect. This is something to acknowledge and celebrate.

Communications professionals in the public service get a hard time from many commentators. There is continual scrutiny on how many there are and how much they get paid.  But, New Zealanders these days expect to get immediate access to information through multiple channels in real time – it takes communications professionals to do this.

Public sector communications professionals are not always perceived in a positive light

They are sometimes called “spin doctors”.

Spin is a pejorative term for the sophisticated selling of a specific message that is biased in favour of one’s own position.  It often implies deception or manipulation.  It is true that public sector communications professionals produce marketing material to promote a policy or programme. This is a legitimate part of their job but is sometimes described as “spin”.

Journalism is under threat and “public relations” is not

Further than this, there is justifiable concern that public interest journalism is under threat, with an apparent decrease in the numbers of journalists and a burgeoning public relations industry.  We need strong, demanding, challenging and well-resourced journalism. And we need public sector communications specialists too.

It is hard to ensure flawless communication

The communications effort was not perfect. Messages were not always consistent. Legal challenges may reveal faults. There was perhaps an inadequate presence of Maori and te reo at the forefront. There was sometimes confusion with ill-chosen words.

The nature and quality of the message rests with both government and the public service – it is hard to disentangle.  Government and the public service must work together closely in a crisis, as they need to be aligned and integrated.

Public sector communications professionals can continue to maintain a positive reputation

Public servants who work closely at the interface of politics and public service, such as public sector communications professionals, walk a fine line. A central principle for the public service is political neutrality. We serve the government of the day and yet maintain the confidence of all future potential governments. Reality and perception both matter.

The Public Service Bill will come into law soon. In this legislation there are explicit principles and values. Demonstrating adherence to these principles will enable public sector communications professionals to continue to affirm the integrity of public servants.

[1] Duncan Greive – in the Spinoff May 11th 2020