The nuances of public sector communications

By Angela Bensemann, Director Halo Communications

Communicating in the public sector comes with its own set of ‘rules’. That’s because:

  • There’s an extra layer of accountability to rate payers and taxpayers.
  • There’s interest from ministers, mayors and councillors – it’s political.
  • You need to be cognisant of legislation like LGOIMA and the OIA.
  • Things take time – there are often more approvals to go through than working in the private sector.

Communicating well is so much more than banging out a media release. It’s about being able to view the issue (or project) from the bigger picture point of view. What else is happening in the organisation that relates to what you’re doing? What else is happening for the community you’re wishing to engage with? If you operate in a silo you are likely to be blindsided and risk having your project derailed.

Getting your team together

Start by getting your project team together. Make sure you’ve got someone with communications experience, that looks through that lens, at your table. It’s simply not good enough to work to programme schedules and delivery dates without factoring in engagement and communication. Ignore this at your peril. Having a communications specialist on your project team will help you avoid these pitfalls.

Issues management

Issues management is at the heart of all good communications in the public sector. Almost every activity/project/issue has an element of risk attached. Sometimes this is a real risk and other times its more about perception (which can quickly become a real risk that needs to be managed). Identifying risks up front, and working out how to mitigate these, will provide a good foundation for your project.
For complex projects a risk register will have been developed weighting and prioritising your management of the risks. It’s important to make sure the communications risks and issues are given equal airtime on this register.

Building relationships

Building relationships with communities is also important. In local government you’re often a lot closer to that community than in central government. If you get it wrong you will hear all about it at the next council meeting, in the local paper or at the café down the road.

People know where to lay the blame and they know where to find you. You want to be found for all the right reasons – because your community knows you are approachable, reliable, you get things done and you have your community’s interests at heart. It’s about making sure you have a relationship with your community, one where they feel heard and appreciated because you understand the value of their input. After all, without these ratepayers you wouldn’t have a job.

In central government the stakes are high. If your project is a lemon or you misjudge your comms, you’ll know all about it and so will the whole country. It’s important to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s. Double checking and quality assurance are part of everything you need to do.

The benefits of investing in stakeholder engagement up front will be obvious in the way your project progresses.

Do things right

Make a commitment at the outset to do things right and communicate well. Don’t get sucked in to operating at a minimal ‘legal obligation’ level – doing the bare minimum to satisfy a legal challenge. Good quality communication doesn’t have to be expensive, but it is often labour intensive and sometimes the most basic methods are the most effective (and that does still include letterbox drops, door knocking and fronting up to public drop-in sessions).

If you need a hand with your communications check out our free checklists and guides or drop us a line angela@halocommunications.co.nz

Photo by Leroy de Thierry on Unsplash