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Reviewing the FCO Communication Capability Review

January 30, 2014

Over the last couple of years British government departments have been subject to Communication Capability Reviews conducted by the Government Communication Network.  These involve a group composed of other government communicators plus outsiders wandering around the Ministry interviewing people and looking at your paperwork – if you’ve worked in the UK public sector or related organizations you will have doubtless experienced something similar.  Anyway I’ve just spotted the Review for the FCO conducted in June 2013.  It’s eight pages so if you want to get a sense of where communications at the FCO is it’s a useful snapshot.

The external reviewers are PR people from a hotel chain,  a corporate PR consultancy and the BBC and the result is what you would expect if you asked corporate PRs to look at an MFA.

They start off by commenting that the FCO is different from other government departments because among other reasons;  communications is a core business, the audience is primarily overseas and the communications capability is distributed across 270 missions.

The FCO communications review of 2011 basically tried to do more with less by reallocating resources away from the centre to directorates and as far as our reviewers are concerned this was bad because this means that the ‘FCO lacks strategic communications resource’.  Here’s an extract from the “areas of challenge”

Status of communications – Communications as a discipline is not widely understood within the FCO. It has not been invested in. While Press Department is widely respected – and used as the main route into the Engagement and Communications Directorate (ECD) – other parts of the communications function are significantly less visible. There is little understanding of the services offered by Engagement and Communications Directorate. There is a lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the various staff who deliver communications activity (Engagement and Communications Directorate, embedded communicators, Senior Regional Communicators and communicators in post, for example). Recruitment is problematic.

Strategic planning – There is no strategic planning process or capability, no overarching communications strategy and no clear narrative targeted on overseas audiences. As a result, policy and communications are not fully integrated: communications is not an integral part of the business planning process. The majority of communications activity therefore is tactical and focused on short-term issues. Posts are unclear whether to amplify messages developed in London or tailor them, taking local issues and concerns into account.

Capacity – The reviewers do not believe that FCO communications resources are used as efficiently as they should be. In particular, the current structure provides insufficient ‘surge capacity’ to support priority policy areas, Foreign Secretary-led initiatives and in-year crises. The large number of locally-engaged staff with little knowledge of UK priorities exacerbates this. The current research resource is under marketed and underutilised. Some internal communications activity is duplicated by embedded staff. Overall, however, the reviewers do not believe that the FCO should increase the amount of resource dedicated to communication.

Capability – FCO staff are intelligent, articulate and committed. However, the current mix of diplomatic staff and communications specialists is sub optimal. Many important issues are dealt with by generalists with insufficient experience of communications and insufficient knowledge of where to go within the FCO for professional communications guidance and support. There is difficulty in ensuring the right level of skills development for diplomatic staff working in communications roles.

Delivery – The lack of strategic planning and lack of clarity over communications roles and responsibilities has led to inconsistent performance in areas including digital, campaign management and delivery, and evaluation.

So what do they want:

A clear vision for communications, an integrated communications plan, a centralized planning and delivery resource, a framework to clarify roles, etc.

There may be something to this but I have a distinct feeling that after starting off by acknowledging how the FCO is different the review then goes on to ignore the fact.  The more I study the history of public diplomacy the more you see that whole area is marked by a number of recurring tensions.  This report manages to hit on several of these tensions but rather than recognizing them simply asserts answers.   Five tensions stand out:

  1. The big question.  What does communication mean in an MFA?  To what extent should communication be a separate function at all? (Remember that in 1953 it was Eisenhower’s psychological warfare advisers like CD Jackson who opposed creating the USIA because everything we do has a psychological effect).  The extent to which comms should be a separate function really depends on your diplomatic concept.  Diplomacy and PD are becoming more linked.
  2. Global strategy vs local adaption?  Absence of global strategy is not necessarily a bad thing if it allows more effective local communications.  I’m up to my eyeballs in the early Cold War at the moment so for an example look at the very rapid disillusionment with Truman’s  Campaign of Truth what looked good in Washington didn’t work in the field.
  3. Centralization vs decentralization.  Same as above but where do you put the resource and control? There are arguments for both.
  4. Specialist communicators vs diplomats.  The FCO has generally leaned towards giving generalists communications experience (see Drogheda Report of 1953)
  5. Locally engaged staff versus home personnel.  Of course the former have local knowledge, language etc but less understanding of the national priorities.

I guess that if you get senior corporate PRs as reviewers they just recommend the things that they think give them status.  Diplomatic communication isn’t PR so next time the government communication networks wants to do one of these reviews maybe they should get at least one reviewer from another MFA.

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