It’s a hot week, so here’s my heatwave-hot hot takes on where digital comms under Prime Minister Boris Johnson might go.
Given the Cabinet clear-out and the style of Boris and – crucially – his team, this feels more like the start of the Coalition in 2010 than the start of Theresa May’s government in 2016.
Also, whereas Theresa May (again, and her team) was notoriously anti-social media at the Home Office, and didn’t seem to thaw a huge amount in Downing Street, with people like Dominic Cummings and Grant Shapps involved, there’s appetite for digital. Just not the kind that Whitehall has really done before – and that could be a potential battleground between political advisors and government communicators.
Less wisdom-of-crowds, more get-out-the-vote
The early days of the Coalition seemed like a golden age of digital engagement, with schemes like the Red Tape Challenge and Your Freedom using crowdsourcing and commenting to get ideas from the public – though not with amazing results.
If profiles of Shapps and Cummings are to be believed – and given the political challenges of Brexit and post-Brexit persuading and directing opinion rather than engaging with it – there will be pressure to focus digital comms more tightly on what mobilises the right groups to take the desired actions. Yes, Grant Shapps gets media kudos for basically using spreadsheets – but scoff ye not. He believes in gathering and applying data to simple tools like online ads and email campaigns in a way civil service comms (and even political comms) rarely does. And he consistently comes out on top when up against those with loftier strategies or more elaborate digital tools.
Not sure about this one. I was hearing Tim Montgomerie on the radio earlier suggesting that Boris’ own social media profiles over the last few months felt like they had been taken over by speech writers. Grant Shapps suggested Boris may be a more liberal, progressive Tory than he gets credit for in the media. If Donald Trump is a guide to anything, it’s that (shall we say) the cut and thrust of Twitter engagement can continue personally even if you have the top job – you don’t have to outsource your social media voice.
We know Boris is a colourful creative writer, and feels that his media coverage is unfairly negative. Perhaps we’ll see more first person “-Boris” signed tweets in the coming months, as his team tries to redress the balance. But after bus-gate, maybe not a Reddit AMA.
Facebook strategies over animated Twitter videos
With referendum winners from Vote Leave packed around the Cabinet table now, it’s likely that civil service digital comms teams will need to have smarter Facebook strategies than before, including paid-for targeting, A/B campaign testing and potentially engagement with influential community groups.
And so it begins. The Conservatives welcome the new PM by pumping Facebook full of Boris Johnson ads. They're running an astonishing 554 versions of these things. Almost as if they're gathering data for an election… pic.twitter.com/HNq9SAophN
— Rowland Manthorpe (@rowlsmanthorpe) July 24, 2019
I’m anticipating that it will be beginning of the end for tepid animated Twitter videos, pushing tepid policies during the weird vacuum of the last few months. If the political advisors are as savvy as they are portrayed to be, your digital comms deliverables as a civil servant will be less about the URL and more about the ad creative and the engagement rates.
Insight-driven comms, changing hearts rather than minds
If there’s an area where a more red-blooded digital comms approach potentially slots well into civil service comms, it’s using insight to drive activity. Government comms has often defaulted (with honourable exceptions) to explaining issues and presenting rational arguments under the banner of raising awareness. But decades of marketing research points to actual behaviour change usually being driven by other factors.
When the political stakes are high, as they are now, it seems likely that civil service comms will be pushed to justify itself to show actual results and changes in the things audiences do, not just eyeballs exposed to it.
But the flip side to the scrutiny and expectations may be a bolder appetite to spend and more senior interest in digital strategy. Interesting times.