Advertisements
 

RIPping the heart out of government comms

June 24, 2011

If you want an exemplary lesson in how to throw the baby out with the bathwater, look no further than the Cabinet Office’s muddled plans for superseding the Central Office of Information.

Admire, first of all, the masterly language of its press release: economic to the point of curtness, yet replete with the kind of ambiguity that once sent the Light Brigade charging down the wrong valley. Clearly the release is written by – and at the behest of – people who haven’t got a clue about the most basic principles of marketing. They seem to think it’s just another branch of PR.

Now let’s move to some of the detail, such as it is. Ostensibly, Cabinet Office “Enforcer” Francis Maude has finessed the advice of his recently departed top adviser, Matt Tee, into a much more economical proposition. Tee’s report, it may be remembered, recommended the COI be streamlined into a fleeter, rebranded, organisation of only 150 employees (2 years ago, it had a staff of about 730). Maude has got the bit between his teeth and evidently believes that government can dispense in its entirety with the services of a formal centralised body orchestrating its communications.

Instead, all government marcoms will now be remitted to the departments of state where they originate, unmolested except by “a new governance structure” of 20 people, dedicated to the ruthless eradication of all duplication and waste. So important is this new department of oversight that it has as yet no name, being referred to quaintly as the ‘Communications Delivery Board’. Another of the heretofore COI’s critical functions, the appointment of agencies, will be hived off to a small “specialist communications procurement unit under the leadership of Government Procurement”. Let’s see how the department of shoes and ships and sealing wax deals with that one. Finally, the rag-tag-and-bobtail of “specialist services” will be placed in “a shared comms delivery pool”, whatever that may be.

The important point to note is that the dismembered functions of the COI will now operate as fully-fledged arms of the Cabinet Office, rather than being semi-detached from it. In other words, they will be vulnerable to covert, if ignorant, political manipulation in a way they were not under the ancien régime. The litmus test of manipulation will be in the appointment of the CDB’s new executive director. Currently, the COI retains some private-sector savvy assets in the form of its chairman Chris Wood and its non-executive director Simon Marquis. It is not clear, however, that either of these will, or will wish to, succeed to the new, attenuated, top role. The most likely appointee will be someone with Tee’s kind of background – a director of comms, skilled at garnering positive press headlines but with no practical knowledge of marketing.

Not everyone will be dissatisfied with this outcome. The big-spending departments of state, such as Health and Transport, are no doubt savouring a famous victory. Under Tee’s proposals, they would have been issuing P45s to many of their dedicated marcoms people. Not only has that idea been kicked into touch: these departments will now be in control of their expenditure in a way they can only have dreamt of a decade ago, when the idea of departmental UDI first erupted during Carol Fisher’s contentious reign as COI chief.

Alas, Health and Transport are the exceptions that prove the rule. They can boast of high profile, successful campaigns – such as Drink Drive and Change4Life – with considerable resources irrevocably committed to them, even in the present austere climate. Elsewhere, the glee may be rather short-lived. Take more occasional users of the taxpayer’s shilling, such as the Department of Justice. No amount of astute manipulation of the headlines by its press secretary was ever going to win the public over to the odious idea that dangerous prisoners might be let out earlier if they owned up to their crimes. The winning argument – centering on making the overloaded justice system more effective and less profligate with public money – is a subtle one, best embedded in a long-running strategic campaign. And who better qualified to help devise it than the old-style COI, informed by the most up-to-date techniques of behavioural nudge?

No chance of that under the new regime. Indeed, with so few experts employed, it would be no surprise to see the government’s communication programme collapse under the weight of its workload. The complete abolition of the COI is a cynical economy too far. Sadly, the Government will probably only come to realise this as we approach the next general election – and marcoms spend soars once again.

Advertisements

Abolition of FSA will give food industry more shout

July 12, 2010

Come on, we all knew a Tory government was going to abolish the FSA. It’s just we got the wrong one in our sights. How devious of them to lead us up the garden path like that!

While the incompetent Financial Services Authority (a watchdog steeped up to its dewlaps in responsibility for the banking crisis) has got off lightly with a root-and-branch reform instead of threatened abolition, the other FSA, the Food Standards Agency, which was threatened with root-and-branch reform but not abolition, is the one that is actually going to get the chop. Health secretary Andrew Lansley, we are told, will shortly announce that the organisation set up in 2000 in the wake of the BSE crisis will have its regulatory remit (safety and hygiene in the food chain) devolved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and its responsibilities for advising on public health and diet (primarily the obesity debate) given to the Department of Health (DoH).

The immediate aim is to save about £1bn by breaking up a department with 2,000 people and a budget of £135m. However, commentators on both sides of the food divide have been quick to discern a not-very-hidden ideological agenda.

Nannyism: Out of fashion

With one stroke, Lansley has struck a lethal blow at the heart of nannyism. Even the food industry seems a little taken aback by the suddenness of the blow. And yet it is entirely consistent with Lansley’s promise – implicit in his decision last week to give industry a bigger role in Change4Life – to substitute “nudge” (persuasive technique) for cumbersome and expensive legislative coercion.

A happy by-product of this policy, so far as the food, soft drinks and alcohol companies are concerned, is that it puts them more firmly in the driving seat. We will hear no more of “traffic lights”, the simplistic but consumer-friendly food labelling system which the FSA has espoused with such zeal, much to the annoyance of Big Food. Similarly, I imagine the threat of a TV advertising watershed imposed on certain food and alcohol categories is definitively a thing of the past; and the medical caucus will – for now – be more hesitant about calling for an outright ban on the consumption of alcohol.

Critics of Lansley’s plan will no doubt point to the conflict of interest inherent in placing regulatory control within a department, Defra, which is also responsible for the supply side. One of the reasons for the FSA’s foundation as an independent body was the perceived inadequacy of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) – Defra’s predecessor – in dealing with the BSE crisis, thanks to its cosiness with farmers. But that’s one for the critics. For the food and alcohol sectors, the FSA’s abolition marks a famous victory, not least in the communications war.

UPDATE: Some furious back-pedalling by Andrew Lansley’s special adviser has led to the following terse statement being issued on the DoH website this afternoon: “No decision has been taken over the Food Standards Agency (FSA). All Arms Length Bodies will be subject to a review.” Meaning? The electric chair will have to wait, but it’s definitely (or should that be indefinitely?) Death Row for the FSA. Emasculation by innuendo. NICE next?


Changed4Life – policy U-turn puts advertisers in the driving seat

July 8, 2010

For the health lobbyists, it was a rout; for advertisers – and especially those in the food, soft drinks and alcohol sectors – a triumph and an indisputable turning point.

Lansley: A Mars a day may help you work, rest and play

Yesterday’s landmark speech by health secretary Andrew Lansley left not a shadow of a doubt about the government’s future stance on the obesity debate. Nannying – in the sense of strict legislative curbs – is out and “nudge” – the employment of persuasion techniques to mould consumer behaviour – is definitively in.

In practice it means that a fiscally-challenged Government intends to withdraw some public funding from the 3-year Change4Life programme, leaving business to take up the financial slack. Almost without saying, this puts the members of the Business4Life initiative in an unprecedentedly powerful position.

As if to underline the point more graphically, Lansley made specific reference to some of the main consortium members in his redefinition of government policy:

“It is perfectly possible to eat a Mars bar, or a bag of crisps or have a carbonated drink if you do it in moderation, understanding your overall diet and lifestyle. Then you can begin to take responsibility for it and the companies who are selling you those things can be part of that responsibility too.” Companies which include Mars, Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola (owner of Walkers Crisps).

What this means for the health lobby was bleakly summed up by Tam Fry, the feisty leading-edge of the National Obesity Forum. “NOF is horror-struck at Mr Lansley’s remarks. It sees them as nothing other than a bare-faced request for cash from a rich food and drink industry to bail out a cash-starved Department of Health campaign, ” he says. I might scruple at the “nothing other” bit, but find it hard to disagree with his argument, as far as it goes.

Lansley’s new concordat is at once an opportunity and a trap for the food and drink industry. It’s an opportunity to exercise more responsibility in what it sells, and how it sells it, to an increasingly wary consumer. As Fry points out, many food manufacturers continue to sell products whose salt, sugar, and fat content is well in excess of Food Standards Agency guidelines. There are signs of greater self-restaint, particularly in the area of trans fats, but it is slow and grudging. The science surrounding obesity meanwhile moves on, and with it – if diffusely and haphazardly – the consumer perception of what is acceptably healthy and what is not. Only this week, for example, a study found that children who are obese tend to exercise less, because they are already overweight; rather than because their lack of exercise causes them to put on weight. In other words, from the complex miasma of obesity’s causes – among them poor education, lack of exercise and poverty  – junk food has once more emerged as an all-too-visible spectre.

So, when Lansley advises Business4Life to reach for the till, it should reach for the till. But its members must also remember that what they are doing will lack all public credibility if it is unaccompanied by measurable changes in the behaviour of the food and drink companies themselves. This is not an opportunity for coasting.


Obama’s take on Change4Life

November 30, 2009

Sian Jarvis, director general of communications at the Department of Health, produced a confidently upbeat report on the Government’s showpiece healthcare communications policy, Change4Life, at a recent Advertising Association sponsored conference, Food Advertising: Time for a Healthy Debate.

The £75m three-year anti-obesity campaign, launched in January this year, is now about to move into its next phase, targeting adults of 45 and above.

As Jarvis herself confessed, the campaign (which is handled by M&C Saatchi) was the brief from hell. A nightmare of political correctness, it had to avoid a patronising, admonitory tone and persuade rather than bludgeon. Despite the fact it is all about health, there could be no mention of sport and fitness (which are middle-class connotations, and therefore not “inclusive”). All in all, it was a miracle that those luminous, animated little men and women made it onto our television screens at all.

Despite this unpromising start, Jarvis was able to report that the campaign has, in ten months, signed up 170 partners and achieved high ratings on most awareness/satisfaction indices.

Probably the biggest endorsement, however, is the fact that the Change4Life blueprint is now being actively considered for a US roll-out. Health secretary Andy Burnham was recently in the White House giving President Barack Obama’s team a briefing on the whys and wherefores. Do expect a US-version of Change4Life in the not-too-distant future. Don’t expect the US taxpayer to be nearly as generous as our own. That would be a “socialist” solution and therefore politically unacceptable in the Land of the Free. Most likely, a very large begging bowl will be sent around industry.

More on Change4Life, and other facets of the conference, in my Marketing Week column this week.


%d bloggers like this: