Is government communications more than press relations?

I was badly sidetracked from what I’m meant to be doing today by a podcast of an event from the Institute for Government What Next For Number 10 Communications? Inevitably the  focus of the event  –   “the role of the Number 10 Director of Communications” – was about press relations.  A distinguished panel of former prime ministerial press advisers and senior journalists was assembled to talk about the role facing Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s new Director of Communications.  It was a fascinating insight into the trials and tribulations of a press handler’s life.  But it did leave the impression that the only kind of comms that matters in government is press relations.

For anyone who’s worked in any other comms discipline in government this will sound familiar if dispiriting.  For understandable reasons most Ministers are focused most of the time on how they are going down in the press.  Other comms approaches don’t seem to have the same resonance with them – even though they might offer more effective ways of communicating directly with the public.

Meanwhile, the review of government comms chugs along, and is due to report soon; and the current Head of COI,  has just announced that he’s leaving for pastures new, giving some the impression that COI’s days as a significant player in government comms may be numbered.

I raised some of the questions I’d like to see answered in the comms review  here.  In particular there are big issues to be addressed around the potential of  new media approaches in government comms.  The only question  I heard raised at the IoG’s event about the role of the internet  (by the only woman’s voice I heard at the entire event) wasn’t answered  by the assembled gentlemen of the press (which chairman Nick Robinson described, without apparent irony, as “a cosy Radio 4 reunion”).   Perhaps my Twitter hero, Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom  “HMG’s data sharing Czar”, is closer to the truth of the government’s approach than I’d  imagined (sample tweet:  We could use the Internet to allow people to connect directly to Whitehall, like a sort of Departmental Ceefax, via wires as it were.)  Can I put in a request to the IoG that now they’ve looked at issues of the press they could turn their attention to the other forms of government communication and debate them?  I’d go.


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