Noel Whelan: Strategic Communications Unit a good idea badly executed
A strategic State approach to communications cannot be seen to benefit any political party
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after the launch of Project Ireland 2040. He has realised belatedly the SCU controversy threatens not only to sap much political energy but to slowly erode his reputation for authenticity
When he was taoiseach Bertie Ahern used to tell staffers a story about attending the launch of a community project in his constituency. He told of how the chairman of the local organisation made a lengthy speech thanking the health board and the local authority for their support, but then went on to say “as for the government, I am sorry to say they were no help to us at all at all”.
The funding for the project, while it came through various localised channels, was all government funding. Ahern used to tell the story to illustrate how people often failed to see the linkage between government and positive supports
More often than not the “state” or the “government”, irrespective of its political composition, gets the blame for everything and the credit for nothing.
Two decades later this disconnect between government and the people has broadened. Overcoming that disconnect is one of the biggest communications challenges which the public sector faces in most countries.
Indeed, this chasm is one of the threats to the underlying stability of politics in many western democracies. Criticising or spreading cynicism about the state is an easier communications task than persuading people of the many ways the state works in their interest.
In this country, as elsewhere, the State also struggles to break through the cluttered online media environment even when seeking to provide basic information to the public about how to access State services and support.
Many states are in the process of building centralised online contact points for public engagement with government services. It is not an easy task. The Canadian government, for example, is currently migrating the content of 1,700 websites run by department and agencies to a single location at Canada.ca. The project is running a year behind schedule, and will cost about 10 times as much as originally budgeted.
The Irish State apparatus in all its forms spends millions of euro and deploys hundreds of personnel on communications functions, but lags well behind other countries in modernising and centralising its engagement with the public. There is much work then to be done by a centralised government Strategic Communications Unit (SCU).
It a great pity that the establishment of such a unit has been so badly handled over the last nine months.
A more strategic approach to State communications is in the national and public interest. Inevitably, better government communications, like better government performance generally, will also accrue politically benefit to the parties and persons who are in government at any given moment in time. It is important, however, that this political dividend is not (or is not perceived to be) the primary objective of such a communication units.
The potential risks here were foreseeable. They were identified early by seasoned political heads inside and outside government. They were cited, for example, by the Taoiseach’s chief political adviser Brian Murphy who, as the Sunday Business Post reported last weekend, expressed a concern that the unit would be seen as a vanity project.
Crossed several lines
Communications people are prone to lose the run of themselves. When those supposed to be doing your communications themselves become the story you know you have a communications problem.
The unit crossed several lines in the manner in which it went about placing advertorials in newspapers about Project Ireland 2040, the national development plan. Many newspapers also have questions to answer about how they indulged a blurring between paid-for advertising and regular newspaper copy.
The Government also crossed several lines in its response to this most recent controversy when it first arose from the reporting of Ellen Coyne at the Times Ireland edition and others. Far from being strategic, the Government response was brutish, tacky and disingenuous.
Even still, this controversy is primarily an inside politics story. The Government now finds itself facing months of Opposition criticism, media queries, Freedom of Information requests, and perhaps parliamentary committee hearings poring over the funding and staffing of the SCU and it dealings with both political operatives and the agency that engaged with the newspapers on the advertorials.
Erode his reputation
Leo Varadkar has realised belatedly that this controversy threatens not only to sap much political energy but to slowly erode his reputation for authenticity.
When making small talk with a senior Fine Gael politician on the fringes of a book launch last autumn, I suggested that the positive value of the SCU could be achieved, and many of the political negatives avoided by setting it up in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform rather than the Taoiseach’s Department. The Cabinet member replied: “Public Expenditure and Finance already have enough power; there’s no way we’re giving them this as well.”
It seems now that a transfer to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is on the cards for the SCU if it is to survive at all.