Can Tweets Replace A Press Release? Government Communications In The Digital Age

Mr Alexander Aiken, who heads the UK’s government communications, tells Challenge what his team is doing differently to excel in a new digital landscape.
Can Tweets Replace A Press Release

What does a good government media release look like? It could be as brief as just a few Twitter updates, suggests Mr Alexander Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communications in the UK.

This is from the man who, in a 2013 speech at the UK’s Public Relations Consultants Association, boldly declared: “The press release is dead.” Two years on, Mr Aiken, who holds the top communications post in the UK government, maintains that the ability for communications professionals to “produce content” – as opposed to just writing it – is critical.

Mr Aiken was in Singapore in February for a Civil Service College communications conference called “Keep It Simple and Clear”, where he shared what the UK government is doing for its communications, and the skills that communications officers of the future need to have.

More content, less copy

Sitting in an office and drafting out lengthy press releases? Nothing more than “telesales”, says Mr Aiken. The rise of digital media has changed how audiences consume information, and resulted in a “less deferential citizenry”.

That is why public officers must adopt a digital approach and be more open in their communications – not only to explain but also justify policies in a way that is “clear, visual and allows citizens to access services quickly”.

“Contemporary communicators should focus less on writing content and sending it out, and [instead] develop skills for producing content in sought-after forms: photo, video, data-visualisation [and the] web,” says Mr Aiken.

Back home, his team has launched a Coding Club pilot programme to equip communicators with computer coding skills so they can create websites and apps.

UK civil servants are encouraged to use social media to explain policy and reach out to the public. “We test and evaluate to see what works best,” says Mr Aiken, “so we have firm evidence to support approaches such as a social media presence.”

Besides producing and editing content, Mr Aiken believes future communications officers should also be data analysts and behavioural scientists.

When measuring success, do not get too preoccupied with what you have done. Focus instead on your campaign’s impact and the value it has brought to the audience.

Singapore’s communications officers, he notes, are already “very good” at core tasks such as media relations and marketing.

“I’d challenge [them] to use public data better to target audiences, use behavioural science techniques… and create more compelling content,” says Mr Aiken, whose three-day visit here included meeting with Mr Janadas Devan, Singapore’s Chief of Government Communications, and chats with Quality Service Managers on improving service delivery.

The UK’s Change4Life health campaign, for example, taps data on citizens’ eating and exercise habits to effect behavioural change and reduce obesity rates, and has helped about 1 million families, adds Mr Aiken.

Streamline communications

A big difference Mr Aiken sees between the UK and other countries is the level of coordination between government agencies.

The UK adopts a “government-wide approach” to communications, resulting in a streamlined strategy that allows the government to speak with “a single voice”.

For instance, the UK has combined over 800 government websites into a single platform ( If a citizen wants to find out more about a government policy – be it about housing or education – he or she can simply visit the platform and do a quick search, instead of ploughing through various agencies’ websites.

He points out that while people do work together in Singapore’s communications, it is a “more diffused” system, with departments being more independent and diverse in how they communicate. “I would advise an even closer cooperation between department and agencies… and more use of cross-government campaigns, planning and evaluation.”

Strength in partners

Even as government communications originates from the top, partners outside the public sector can and should be roped in.

He gives the example of the UK’s GREAT Britain campaign, which promotes Britain as a great place to visit, live, study in, and trade with. The campaign engages British brands such as McLaren, Burberry and Aston Martin, and features them on the campaign website. These companies have also incorporated the GREAT brand in their promotional activities.

“The rules for such cooperation are clearly laid out – the projects need to have a mutual benefit but cannot contradict a goal of the government,” says Mr Aiken.

He believes that a similar campaign for Singapore uniting tourism, investment and education would be “stronger than the offer of individual agencies and companies”.

On Internal Communications

Clear communications within and across public agencies is “absolutely essential” and a priority for the UK government, says Mr Aiken. “We check on its progress and efficiency through our Annual People Survey and also follow through on any developments with our fortnightly email to all staff.”

He adds that internal communications involves informing employees about priorities and objectives, ensuring clarity about the division of tasks and expectations, as well as motivating and empowering them to be independent and confident in their work.

Another UK campaign he is proud of is one that features citizens to tell a story, in a project to promote apprenticeships among young people. “It filmed and photographed success stories and had participants tell their stories on the web... So we are using citizens to explain government policy – [which is] perhaps a more convincing approach than traditional advertising.”

Measure success

Importantly, public officers must find ways to quantify the success of their campaigns. As Mr Aiken said in his 2013 speech: “Unless you can prove your worth, you’re simply not doing your job.”

His team uses a “three O’s” method of evaluation: outputs (what is being offered to the audience), outtakes (what the audience takes away from the campaign and whether their behaviour will change) and outcomes (the actual value or success of the campaign).

His tip: When measuring success, do not get too preoccupied with what you have done. Focus instead on your campaign’s impact and the value it has brought to the audience.

“As someone once told me, delivery is not the same as success,” he says. “Focusing on what you have done instead on what value has been added is probably the greatest pitfall in evaluation.”

Follow Mr Aiken on Twitter at @alexanderaiken and @UKgovcomms. You can join the Government Communications Service and use its resources.

    Nov 9, 2015
    Jeanne Tai
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