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Durham University

Durham University News


Strategy, saving lives and continuous improvement: talking Government communications with Alex Aiken

(4 February 2021)

Alex Aiken

The 5Ds - digital, diversity, data, direct communications and disinformation - are the major challenges for 2021, says Alex Aiken, the UK Government’s most senior communications professional.

Addressing these will enhance strategic communications activities that encourage conversations with disparate and diverse audiences rather than broadcasting to them. 

Long gone are the days of SOS communications – ‘Sending Out Stuff’.

Alex was speaking via Zoom to Advancement and Communications professionals at Durham University, invited by Director and former Government Communications chief Lucian J. Hudson.

The day before, the UK had reached 100,000 deaths due to Covid-19, and the Government’s ‘Look into my Eyes’ Covid-19 campaign had just launched.

This campaign, with its close-up images ­­of various faces, some wearing surgical masks, others ventilation masks, highlights how our personal choices impact on pressures on the NHS. It reminds us to stay at home to save lives.

The importance of data-driven decisions

Using data to develop, improve and evaluate strategy is increasingly important in targeting Government communications and maximising their impact. 

Qualitative and quantitative data sources include regular audience polls and engagement statistics for digital content. There is increasing investment in human behavioural science to inform campaigns.

Audience figures have shaped the format and delivery of the Government’s regular Covid-19 press conferences and justified the need for them.

Millions of people watch but analysis showed viewing would greatly decrease after the politicians and experts had given their presentations.

Introducing ‘direct communications’ - members of the public to ask their questions alongside journalists - has proved popular with those watching at home.

A great responsibility

Alex’s role as Executive Director for Government Communications is to lead and oversee communications strategy across all UK Government departments including the Cabinet and Prime Minister’s offices. 

He is head of the Government Communications Service (GCS), totalling around 7,000 communications professionals globally, spending £0.75BN delivering around 100 major campaigns annually and operating round the clock.

As head of profession, he establishes good practice and strives for continuous improvement.

Recent campaigns other than Covid-19 include the UK’s Brexit transition; recruitment to the teaching profession and the armed forces; terrorism prevention, public order and health promotion campaigns focusing on cancer, obesity and mental health. 

There is also a team dedicated to tackling disinformation, working with global partners.

This considerable remit brings a responsibility to ensure his team’s work is highly effective and value for money.

Saving lives during the Covid-19 pandemic

The UK Government’s communications strategy is to proactively communicate to save, improve and enhance people’s lives.

This has become acutely important during the Covid-19 pandemic, which poses one of greatest strategic communications challenges for many decades. 

One of the strongest endorsements of the value of Government communications during the Covid-19 pandemic was Health Secretary Matt Hancock stating on national TV that it had tangibly saved lives.

The fact that the United Nations, NATO, the World Health Organisation, Google and the European Union have all sought advice on strategic communications is testament to GCS professionals being trailblazers of global good practice.

Other points covered in Alex’s talk include:

  1. Beg, borrow and steal good ideas. Communicators “build on the shoulders who have gone before us”.
  2. Strategy is the synergy of ends, ways and means. Be clear on what you can realistically achieve with the time, resources and capabilities available.
  3. Universities are important in the “armoury of our nation”. They can considerably strengthen campaigns like Build Back Better and GREAT by contributing ideas and more.
  4. Political nous (but not party political bias) is an important attribute for communicators. Similarly the adoption of an ethical code of conduct.
  5. The value of continuing professional development (CPD). The Government Communications Service CPD programme develops leadership, confidence and resilience to change amongst other skills.
  6. Mental health matters. There is a need to surface and address wellbeing issues, especially during the current pandemic. Alex talks about these issues “most weeks” with his communications directors.

Alex Aiken is the Executive Director for Government Communications. For his full biography, click here. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexanderAiken  

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