Getting the message right

Corporate communications have assumed a more elevated status in the public sector since the onset of austerity. Budget cuts, service reductions and closure of hospitals have resulted in a lot of "difficult" messages to deliver. The new style corporate communications gurus emphasise the importance of being proactive rather than reactive so rather than drafting press releases in response to awkward questions they advise on a communication strategy which prepares the way for changes and avoids the need for damage limitation statements. The communication strategy is basically, agree the message, get everyone on message, repeat message. (Apparently the message needs to be repeated in seven different ways, the most effective being face to face and for a large organisation this takes between 6 to 18 months - Salix Consulting).

Corporate communication is not to inform but to persuade, not to debate but to get the message across. The message is part of shaping the corporate identity since the message is about the type of organisation we are going to be , inevitably one that looks different to the one that currently employs you or that you know and use. The head of corporate communications is at the heart of the transformation processes and increasingly part of the senior management team. They may even have taken the seat previously occupied by the head of HR reflecting that concerns about employees have been replaced by concerns about reputation management. 


The big challenge for public sector organisations such as local authorities and hospitals/ NHS trusts is the diversity of services and therefore the number and complexity of messages. To such an extent that most managers don't know what the message is, getting it confused with government priorities, business plan objectives and financial targets. The message has a financial element "we can no longer afford to do things the way we have done them in the past", a business plan element which means more of this and less of that or "mergers, closures, centralisation and specialisation" and a political element, balancing cost and quality through greater use of the private sector.

Corporate communications most demanding task is to get managers to translate  the message for their services, their staff and their audiences before they can work on the seven ways of getting the message out. Hence the complaint of poor communication is often a more fundamental problem of a lack of a clear, consistent message or a failure to act in accordance with the message.


Blair McPherson is an author and commentator on the public sector


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