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Government “strategic communication” needs more than just a buzzword

strategic communication word cloudBy Howard Lee

The news about the Ministry of Manpower is seeking “public relations experts to help it communicate manpower policies in a strategic way” earlier this week should have raised a few concerns, not just because of the scope of work, but also in what it reveals about the communication woes of the Ministry, and possibly the government as a whole.

The potential scope of work, if you believe in the report by The Straits Times that claims to have had access to this “letter to prospective firms”:

“It has asked for proposals for a plan to analyse public and online sentiments on manpower issues, and respond to them in an "integrated" way, using media stories, blogs and social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter.

The services required include coaxing journalists to write one or two MOM stories a month, and getting MOM officials featured in live and recorded TV and radio programmes every three months…”

So we gather that it is a call-for-proposal for “strategic communication services”, for a sum that MOM has declined to disclose.

Apparently, an earlier contract by MOM in June “to monitor daily how local and foreign media are reporting news related to the ministry” went to the tune of S$154,000. While we may balk at such a sum for what is essentially an in-built corporate function, this new contract, if it happens, is likely to cost much more.

And to be fair to the industry, a price tag in the hundreds of thousands is not a real issue, particularly if the contractor is expected to service this for a number of years – such is the purpose of “strategic communication”.

The question to ask is whether MOM would be getting its money’s worth, and if it has gotten its approach right.

The scope of work seems quite prescriptive – find out what people are talking about us, and respond to them consistently across all available channels so we don’t look like a bunch of disorganised idiots.

The services in question, while unquestionably exhaustive if not rigorous, are more description of strategic communications, rather than strategic communication.

Picking on just one letter? Some clarity might be in order:

“An alternative view of Strategic Communication is offered by Steve Tatham of the UK Defence Academy. He argues that whilst it is desirable to bound and coordinate communications together - particularly from governments or the military - it should be regarded in a much more fundamental manner than simply process. The 'informational effect' should be placed at the very epi-centre of command and that all action must be calibrated against that effect - including the evaluation of 2nd and 3rd order effects. This is, he argues, proper Strategic Communication (communication singular - an abstract noun) whilst the actual process of communicating (which include Target Audience Analysis, evaluation of conduits, measurements of effect etc.) - is Strategic Communications (plural).”

srat comm models
Various models used to describe strategic communication.

There are many models of strategic – or at the very least, integrated – communication efforts that an organisation can take. More rudimentary ones closely model the basic communication model, while some take a more structured approach to breakdown the various steps of the processes involved.

Strategic communication also has a military perspective, which the Manpower Minister himself might be better acquainted with. One of the key difference is that the military model has a decisive influencing approach, usually with little regard for the feedback loop.

That MOM has opted for this potential contract to “analyse public and online sentiments” is a positive first step – at least, we know that MOM is not preparing to merely air-drop leaflets, electronically or otherwise, to its constituents to inform them about MOM policies. Or, is it?

Strategic communication has a few distinguishing factors compared to “regular communications”. The two I have highlighted above are putting the guys at the top in the centre of the effort, and responding effectively to the feedback loop.

Granted, the response to the feedback loop need not involve the organisation’s leaders. The communications professional running the initiative is, in terms of expertise, the best person to do it effectively. Why, then, is it important for senior staff to be at the centre of the initiative?

The first is to facilitate internal communication of the corporate position. The best brands are established because everyone is consistently saying the same thing, to the extent that the external communication to customers is internalised as corporate culture. All staff become brand ambassadors, and you need the top guy to make sure that happens.

But constantly parroting the same lines is not enough. Ambassadors need to truly believe in the product and the value it holds to their customers. And this is where, I strongly believe, the guys at the top comes in. The organisation’s leaders not only need to ensure that every one is saying the same thing, but also believe it. The only way faith in the product can be cultivated is if it answers effectively to the interests of the customer. In other words, the feedback loop becomes not just a chart that tells you how best to reach out to your customer, but an integral part of product development and improvement.

In a government ministry, what is the product and who are the customers?

I once had a supervisor who told me that, besides being the mouth, a good communication professional must also be the ears for the organisation. Only when the organisation is able to integrate the feedback loop into the production process itself would strategic communication be successful, instead of being just a buzzword.

Strategic communications might be the “icing on the cake”. Strategic communication, on the other hand, must necessarily be part of the cake. And it is the responsibility of the organisation’s top leader to ensure that such a functional integration takes place.

But what can we tell from the new MOM tender so far? Develop one message for our product (policies), find out what the people (customers) are saying about us, and where, then push out our message in the most convincing and efficient way. If we do not convince, evaluate, and try again. But, just leave the policies untouched, thank you very much.

No prizes for guessing where that would lead. Unfortunately, from personal experience, that has been the modus operandi in government communication efforts for the longest time.

But also fortunately, this is only a call for proposals. There is still hope of turning this around – on the condition that they start looking for ears rather than mouths.

How much influence strategic communication and customer relationship have in the development of both products and corporate culture will determine the success of the effort, not the fact that you have placed x number of advertorials in x number of newspapers that no one reads, because they simply do not relate to what you are trying exhaustively to tell them.

We are in an age where the product can change, but the customer simply won’t. Live with it, flow with it.

This article was first published on Angelens Consultancy, a start-up by the editor to offer public communication services.