23 February 2020

Public-sector communications is the poor relation of company comms: how to get more pzazz & lose the pfft. Pt 1

Why can you instantly distinguish between comms or campaigns from companies and those from the public-sector? What makes corporate messaging usually so much better?

I have headed communications for both local authorities and in the NHS. I have also worked in comms elsewhere in the public-sector. I often look enviously at the messaging that private-sector communicators distribute. I have sometimes cringed when I have seen both content and its implementation from councils, the NHS & in government communications.

How do companies attract attention, divert to a video and prompt other engagement - reposts, retweets, likes - and so deliver the intended actions, whilst fewer messages from government, the NHS and councils manage to prompt thought or action from the audience?

Corporate communications laps public-sector communications on near every circuit. Compare what is issued by the fast-food giants, the betting companies, ‘media’ companies - from Virgin Media to LADbible - to what you are told in campaigns and communications from government, such as about coping with Coronavirus or dealing with Brexit.

It’s not just budgets. Even in next-to-no cost tweets (when the video or image is borrowed from elsewhere), the attitude, immediacy, trend-piggybacking and viral-ready approach used more often in private-sector comms means that local news websites are far more likely to retweet a Greggs ‘story’ about a new bun than an announcement from Anytown Council that it’s going carbon-neutral.

How big is the divide?

Let's look at some example videos and images (although a fair few public-sector organisations appear not to have yet obtained a video-camera and so miss the most powerful channel.)


This current NHS video ‘Catch It. Bin It. Kill It.’ reminds of a WW2 newsreel. It would never be mistaken for private-sector marketing. I think it’s a lesson, yet all already know germs are bad and spread.

The intention is to change behaviour - get people to use tissues, bin them and wash their hands. But the video takes no notice of whom it's targeting. I think it will appeal most to worthies who already do these things.

I think the style of this video means it isn't effectively promoting these changes in behaviour as modish to its target cohort. It needs to push change amongst those who sneeze over others and maybe wipe their nose on their sleeve.

Moving onwards in years is this UK government & NHS Coronavirus video. That’s forward to the style of a cheap, animated children’s cartoon from the 70s. Flair, sass & style are all missing.

It might be countered that it's easy to criticise, how else should it be done? In short: copy the private-sector. Emulate KFC - they get it right, time after time:

and produce instantly viral (1.8M views on YouTube in 9 days) content:

This KFC video is not really selling a product - they won’t be making many of those shoes. It’s promoting the brand. Yes, this production costs money - the set and more, the star (a rapper) but it's the ideas and the story that drives this so successfully.

It might be argued, 'is not really communicating anything, I need to increase the people changing to this process, or increase visitor flow to that or change minds about the other'.

But the overall brief from KFC will have been very clear: increase sales! They work to deliver this in a much more comprehensive and so better way. And with boundless creativity.

A public-sector communicator tasked with the same brief might produce a video of an average family eating KFC whilst reciting a long check-list of what's good about the food, or posters crammed full of facts such as how much is the carbon footprint of KFC chicken or how the buckets are now made from greener methods. They would find it hard to use the intangibles that have put this KFC video in front of so many potential customers.

Why can't the Government Communications Service or Public Heath England use a similarly deft touch in addition to necessary officialese? Deploy content made for viral, as well as for formal messaging, on Coronavirus and more?

Such can be undertaken cheaply - and with that sass and style - like by this US doctor in this 15-seconds video on TikTok:


In the style of KFC, how about the following for a video to message actions to diminish the spread of germs: stylised, muted-palette set, with nods to fixtures for daily activities (e.g. commuter strap, fast-food table). From each fixture, contemporary, young female and male blow noses into a succession of different, single-colour disposable tissues which they then throw into a sunken bin at the centre of the set. Final shot: in the bin, showing a wild pattern of swirling colours.

Local government celebrates its work with an annual #OurDay on Twitter. For this the council where I live published a 15-second low-res video travelling along a path in a dull and deserted park, passing by a few out-of-focus bushes. That was it. The text referred to gardening work the local authority has undertaken. This zero-level creativity is not unusual in the public-sector.

I can’t see any commercial body - from a local dry-cleaners to a minicab firm - not doing better than that in promoting what they do. But councils and others can communicate well and usually have a much better story to tell.

This joyful 44-seconds video from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham effectively celebrates and takes credit for universal free school lunches at two schools.

Why does public-sector communications lag so much? In Part 2, I look at the organisation of comms in government, councils, the NHS and elsewhere and reasons for its lack of creativity.

Clive Power