"We're here to make things better" – Alex Aiken on communications professionals

"We're here to make things better" – Alex Aiken on communications professionals

On 20 September, Alex Aiken, the UK government’s Director of Communications, spoke at CIM’s Belfast event on change, leadership and effectiveness in communication. Here are the highlights.

Elections bring out a spell of madness across the UK, enlivened by stone tablets, referendum flotillas and candidates in silly hats.

But the UK Government’s Director of Communications, Alex Aiken, will never forget the Daily Mirror chicken of 1997 – a man in a costume deployed to goad John Major after the newspaper claimed he was too chicken to debate with rival Tony Blair.

Then a Conservative Party press officer, Aiken had to prevent the determined chicken from embarrassing the leader at an election event.

“As the car pulled in and the nation's media were there, I had to stop the chicken. So I rugby-tackled the chicken. It was the only thing one could do,” Aiken says. “And I ended up on the front page of five national newspapers.”

He delivered the anecdote to a roomful of senior marketers at a CIM event at Queen's University Belfast last week. And the moral of this tale?

“I tell you that story to assure you that in your careers, you will not be capable of making the number of mistakes and cock-ups that I have over the years. But I do want you to be brave – and there is nothing wrong with failure as long as you learn from it.”

Now based in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, Aiken is the most senior communications professional in the Civil Service, responsible for government communications strategy, management of the Cabinet Office and No.10 communications operation, and leadership of the profession.

His government communications plan is the blueprint for 90 key campaigns, including the National Living Wage programme, the Stoptober anti-smoking campaign and the blood donation drive.

Aiken’s role is to ensure effective use of a communications budget topping £300 million – developing new ways of working, restructuring, and bringing professionalism into teams of communications staff across government departments.

The government now plans its marketing with a tool called OASIS, which stands for the steps needed for a clear campaign - starting with the Objective, followed by Audience insight, then Strategy, then Implementation and Scoring or evaluation.

He describes having to pull up the then-Prime Minister David Cameron when he became too bogged down in the detail of the National Living Wage campaign, emphasising that this is why the OASIS plan is needed – to set the destination and then figure out the pathway there. However, he also stresses that marketers do need to get alongside their leaders’ goals.

“I think marketers can exist in their own professional world and I think they’ve got to work really hard to understand the business objectives of the organisation and the motivations of those who lead the business,” he says ahead of the talk, adding that this happens in politics when you have new ministers who only have on average of four years to make their mark.

“Understanding what motivates them – in political cases it’s generally public service and wanting to improve the condition of the people – is not done often enough and sensitively enough. Sometimes any profession can retreat into its own body of knowledge rather than really understanding and being passionate about the agenda of the people that it’s serving.”

Aiken shares some of the lessons learned on how marketers can build a responsible culture within their own organisations. They need to get a clear picture of the target audience, use the full marketing toolkit and act as the conscience of the organisation, drawing a clear picture of what success will look like.

One key government endeavour is the Great Britain campaign, aimed at bringing trade benefits, attracting tourists and persuading overseas students to study in the UK.

“It’s a £60 million campaign and it has delivered over £2bn worth of benefit to the UK – which is a 20-to-one return on investment,” Aiken says.

“That campaign is evaluated in three separate ways to ensure its robustness. It measures the outcomes, the intermediates, the outtakes, the outputs against the inputs. And that is the structure we try to make sure is central to every major marketing campaign.”

Alex quotes the three Gs for leadership – grace, grit and goal – and cites a study that showed that 20% of what people do in their job delivers 80% of the impact.

“Why can’t we focus relentlessly and ruthlessly on the things that will have the most impact? Can we stop doing the things that don’t really matter?” he asks.

“Leadership is about everyone taking responsibility for doing their job to the highest possible standard and not leaving it undone or trying to manage up or down or shift the buck.

“What I will say to the public service marketers today is that the role is not really as marketers – their role is to change lives for the better, that’s what the purpose of public service is.

“So getting stuck in a discipline, whether it be marketers or public service or scientists or economists, is less important than why are we here. We’re here to make things better.”

Linda Stewart is a freelance journalist.

Linda Stewart Freelance Journalist CPL
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