Does your organisation only get two of three key steps right when creating and delivering a new piece of communications? Read on…
by Ben Capper
Whether it’s a short campaign, a poster or a full blown rebrand of a big organisation, getting the message right is central if it’s going to be successful.
So, yeah, you need to know your audience, map your stakeholders, and understand your SMART objectives.
But, just as important for us as communicators is a clear sense of what we’re talking about, in what terms, and what we want people to either do or take away from it.
The one, clear, sure-fire way of making sure you have that clear message is to ask yourself three simple questions:
Before you click off this blog and find a more detailed guide to teaching your grandparents to suck oval shaped spherical avian incubation chambers – there now follows an explanation of how so many organisations get two out of three right, but are sadly lacking on the last one….
It’s what is often called “the golden circle”, coined by bespectacled, perma-tanned management guru and all round TED-Talk polymath Simon Sineck. The theory goes that;
“People don’t buy what you do, or how you do it. They buy why you do it.”
And for the record, I agree.
This is why Apple (essentially a computer and mobile phone manufacturer like any other) have been able to carve themselves such market dominance, whilst retaining an air of “cool” about them, despite their product launches being led almost entirely by middle-aged dudes in ill fitting “mom jeans”. (Though nothing will ever beat the YouTube clip of the Microsoft Windows 95 launch in this respect – watch, cringe, be inspired).
I think most public institutions actually understand this, these days. They, on the whole, understand their “why”. Their Exec teams go on away days to define it. They have internal comms programmes to try and understand it. They have amazingly vague platitude-ridden straplines like “working together for a brighter future” or “passionate about holistic enabled futures for all” (OK, that last one I made up).
And, don’t get me wrong, this is hugely important. Understand purpose, and articulating what gets us out of bed in the morning is central to forging a true, authentic identity that is meaningful to customers and citizens, and helping staff to feel good about their contributions.
It is, in fact, the first question that all of us as communicators should be asking.
We’ve never had any trouble with this one.
We all have a good appreciation of what we do, and what we’re either promoting or consulting about.
The issue with this one is about getting inside the head of technical or, for us in the NHS, medical experts to interpret very complex information into human language.
But this is what we’re good at. It’s not our job to be experts in every detail of our organisations. But it is our job to interpret those details and make them understandable for our audiences.
So, we generally find this one, pretty easy.
And so we arrive at our point.
It’s my belief, that across the public sector, and politics, we’re pretty bad at explaining this one.
This is understandable.
The “how” is kind of the boring bit. It’s the “where’s the funding coming from?”, “who’s in charge?”, “when will I actually notice anything changing?” bit – and sometimes getting all this together and presenting it in such a way that doesn’t seem to dilute your inspiring message is hard.
But, I’d argue, these days that it’s never been more important to describe.
Yes, people might mostly buy “why you do” something. But, increasingly in our era of more-for-less and change in the public sector, our residents, patients, and tax payers are looking for far more information around how we do it.
I recently did a big public engagement / conversation / consultation piece of work up here on the Wirral, where we were asking people about what’s most important to them, and what needs to change around health and social care.
A big theme that came up (and stop me if you’ve heard this before), was this suggestion to “sack all the managers” and get more frontline staff.
When we explored this point a bit more and asked why, as a manager in the NHS, I should be sacked, the answer was almost always along the lines of:
“Well what do they actually do?” “You have all these managers on big salaries, and no-one has a clue what they’re up to.”
What this tells us is that what people are craving these days is transparency. There’s no real evidence that anyone could point to as to why all these managers are apparently so useless. But they do want to know where we spend our money.
Especially in the NHS, they want reassurance that their local healthcare system is going to remain free at the point of use, and delivered by someone in an NHS uniform.
One thing I’ve seen many times over the past few months, especially when talking to people in the community (and seeing many a Facebook post about it) about the future of the NHS is this idea that any change whatsoever is part of a Government plot to privatise this beloved national institution and turn it into a US-style insurance model.
I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes when I read stuff like that. But it always gives me pause for thought. This is a classic example of how being a bit hazy on the details (either because it’s a bit boring, or because they aren’t fully worked through yet) can lead inevitably to people filling in the gaps themselves and drawing their own conclusions. It can first and foremost be irritating to deal with on a professional point of view. But the long term implication of this is a fundamental erosion of trust, which is really catastrophic for any public organisation.
Let’s face it. Any of us who work in comms in the public sector, third sector or even education have seen a whole lot of uncertainty in the last few years.
It’s been worrying for us. But for people out there that rely on our services day-to-day, it’s been just as worrying for them too.
We owe it to our communities to be honest treat them like adults and talk in really transparent terms about “how” our organisations are working through these strange times.
But this period of change isn't just worrying for our communities. It has, I believe, led to a real change of culture where many people are wanting us to demonstrate more value for money for their tax dollars, than they’ve ever done before.
This is classic “know your audience” territory. They’re demanding transparency and value for money, so it’s up to us as communicators to challenge our leaders to ensure that we provide it by being clear in our messaging.
As with anything in public sector comms, it’s a real challenge, but It's a great opportunity to tell that story about how we work.
It's about doing away with vague platitudes and making it real.
The #ourday tweetathons are a brilliant start in this regard. They show really clearly the great work that councils do on a daily basis in one spectacular 24 hour period.
But it’s time that this stuff becomes an inherent part of a wider narrative. Being transparent should become part of the brand promise of every public organisation. It may be difficult at first, but it’ll build trust, and a genuine partnership with your communities.
So don't forget the “how”.
We're being judged on it more than ever.
Ben Capper is a senior communications and engagement manager in the NHS