Portland Quarterly

Promoting a Government’s Brand

Portland’s Managing Partner Steve Morris on what governments can learn from corporate communications

Portland’s creation almost a decade ago was founded on the belief that the techniques of political communications could be successfully applied to business. So it is perhaps slightly ironic that we are increasingly finding ourselves transferring the skills of corporate communications to governments. What’s clear is that the private and public sectors have plenty to learn from each other.

The crucial importance of message discipline is one of the key insights from the political world for business. Our experience of political campaigns and government has taught us that a clear sense of objectives, target audiences and creating clear messaging that can be cascaded across different media is critical to success.

While it is easy to be cynical about politicians’ commitment to slogans, buzzwords and talking points, message discipline is essential in a fiercely competitive media environment. We have learned that when journalists are sick to death with hearing the same sound-bite repeated that is the moment when a message finally begins to make an impression on the wider public.

Governments that remain disciplined and offer a clear narrative about the future are well on the way to winning public support for the reforms and recognition of their successes and challenges they face. In contrast, Governments that let their messages wander, who find themselves “re-launching” every month and are unable to get back on the front-foot, find their achievements ignored by the public and set-backs successfully exaggerated by their opponents.

Businesses do not usually face the same day to day media and public interest or immediate verdict on their reputations as politicians. But this means they are likely to be far less prepared when they are caught in the middle of a firestorm.  Recent history points to plenty of examples of how poor message discipline worsens problems with a damaging impact on share price and profits.  BP’s experience in the Gulf of Mexico and Toyota’s handling of product recalls demonstrate that having clear messages and sticking to them is critical. What social media has done is made this impact more immediate and widespread than ever before.

The unpredictability of social media also means that there no longer needs to be a serious environmental, health or safety issue before businesses find themselves or their brands under attack. Criticisms, fair or unfair, can come from any number of sources at any time. Gap’s recent unhappy experience when it tried to change its logo is just the latest example of the power of protest on the web.  Clarity of message is more important than ever in responding successfully to these internet-based criticisms.

In fact, the sheer reach and speed of the social media, as politicians know, means that the monologues of the past are as out-of-date as the Sony Walkman. They have been replaced by genuine two-way dialogue. When you are taking part in a constant conversation with millions of consumers, it is critical that all communications are based on a clear set of well-thought and effective messages.

This feedback loop between government and the private sectors is far from one-way. More and more, we see governments seeking to promote their own and their nation’s reputation like a company promotes its brand.

Take, for instance, the recent trip to Europe by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera in the wake of the successful rescue of the 33 trapped miners. Piñera skilfully tried to use the global attention and good-will to change international perception of his country away from the divisions and dark days of dictatorship.  He used every opportunity to use the rescue to build and reinforce views of his country as a modern, united and forward-looking economy and society. In London, Piñera accepted that “Chile now is better known, is more respected, is more valued worldwide.” He sounds more like a CEO talking about a product than a President talking about his people.

While not every country has, nor would want, a human emergency of this nature to refresh its national reputation, there is no doubt that Governments have now begun to realise how moments of media attention can shift attitudes. It explains, for example, the determination of countries to bid for hugely expensive international sporting events.
This summer’s World Cup did more for Africa and South Africa in particular in terms of raising the world’s confidence in its economic abilities than any amount of media marketing. The awarding of the next World Cup and 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro confirms Brazil’s place as a rising economic powerhouse.

It also explains the national outrage in India over its lack of preparation for the recent Commonwealth Games. Commentators around the world quickly drew comparisons, however unfairly, with India’s progress as a modern society and economy with China’s successful hosting of the Olympics. Brazil’s politicians will have been watching closely.

In a true global economy where countries are competing against each other for inward investment, national reputations matter. Governments have to learn to manufacture or exploit opportunities to shift attitudes.  This can require an honest appraisal of the problems and perceptions, a clear communications strategy to overcome them and more resources, particularly to engage instantly with the new media channels.

They must also take as much care and effort as business does to protect its brand.  It’s not just personnel moving between the private and public sectors. So are ideas.

Steve Morris is the Managing Partner at Portland and advises both governments and corporate clients on their communications structures and strategies