Communications in politics is a minefield

Written by Jim Walsh - March 2018

For communication professionals outside Ireland who are reading this, it might come as a surprise to learn that the Irish Parliament has this week voted 85-49 to disband the Government’s Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) just six months after it was unveiled by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar.

The SCU has been mired in controversy during its short lifespan. Initially opposition parties called it a waste of public money and the Taoiseach’s personal spin unit.  Then earlier this month the SCU caused a political furore by placing advertorials in Irish newspapers to promote the Government’s 2040 National Planning Framework.

The controversy arose because in some local newspapers the photographs accompanying the text featured local Fine Gael party members likely to be candidates in the next General Election, which is due to be held within the next twelve months. This drew claims that the advertorials were party political features rather than Government features.

In addition people were interviewed by journalists from some newspapers but the interviewees not informed that their quotes would be used in advertorials being produced “in partnership with the Government of Ireland.”

The Times London, Irish Edition also reported that regional newspapers were instructed to make the government advertorials look like independent stories and in some cases part of “the normal news cycle.”

The establishment of the SCU may have had well-intentioned objectives. What enterprise could object to centralising its strategic communications in order to:

  1. Streamline communications for its audience
  2. Develop and deliver major cross-enterprise communication campaigns
  3. Improve communications capacity across its departments/business locations

The National President of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland has said: “The bottom line is that good communications, particularly from Government, is not a luxury nor is it a choice. The Irish people deserve good quality effective communication and that requires professionals, structures and a planned approach.”

However he went on: “While setting up the Strategic Communications Unit was an undoubtedly smart move, the communications around its establishment were a lot less successful.”

It might have seemed a smart move but the failure of the Government to sell the benefits of the Unit are rooted in four key miscalculations.

The first involved the timing and lack of consultation.  It was set up quickly by a small group, without any apparent indepth analysis. There appeared to be no consultation and no buy-in from other Government Departments. It was simply imposed on the existing structure. Hence, when it got into trouble, there were very few rushing to its defence.

The second miscalculation was blurring the lines between external professionals and the established civil service. The SCU team of 15 is made up of a mixture of ‘brought in’ professionals and civil servants. Some are from the Government Press Office, which remains responsible for handling day-to-day media enquiries.

The relative positioning of the SCU and the long established Government Press Office is made clear on the Taoiseach’s Department web site where the SCU Director is shown to have a straight reporting line to the Department’s General Secretary, while the Government Press Office sits all alone in the bottom left hand corner of the Department’s Organisational Chart with no reporting links to anyone.

The third miscalculation was a deficit in defining the role of the SCU within Government. It was confusing. It wasn’t clear if it was a marketing unit – its director has a reputation of being a marketing guru with the ability to ‘package’ campaigns –  or if it was an information unit.  Was it set up just to save money? What control did it have over what individual Ministers can or cannot communicate? Does it decide what are cross Government communication campaigns when in practice every Government Department’s communications campaign is on behalf of the Government.

And finally there is the involvement of the Taoiseach himself. He has a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for being over concerned with self-publicity (what politician isn’t?), but it is hard to escape that reputation when his weekly videos where he outlines what the Government has achieved still display the Twitter handle @campaignforleo, which was used in his campaign to become the leader of the Fine Gael party early in 2017.

The Sunday Business Post has also exposed some conflict within his Department when the setting up of the SCU was being considered.  A Freedom of Information request, which was denied for six months, revealed that a senior advisor to Leo Varadkar warned of the potential for the Unit to be ‘spun’ as a ‘vanity project’.

So what is the future for the SCU?  Earlier this month Leo Varadkar set up an investigation into the functions of the Unit and suggested at the time that it could end up being disbanded.

But in recent days he has indicated that the Government will ignore the Dáil motion, which was passed today and wait for the report he requested from the Secretary General of his Department.

That in itself is a move that will have Governance experts scratching their heads as the person now carrying out the investigation is actually the person responsible for the Unit.

The SCU had the potential to show how professional and effective strategic communication could work to the benefit of Government. Instead it became the story, rather than the Government it was there to serve. As a result ’spin’ and ‘propaganda’ are the words which will continue to be associated with it should it survive.

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