Taoiseach’s Strategic Communications Unit warned of dangers of the “parliamentary bubble” in briefing by UK experts

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar’s €5 million spin unit was warned of the dangers of getting caught in a “parliamentary bubble” in a special briefing from the UK government’s premiere public relations guru.

Two senior members of the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) visited London in September for a high-level briefing with senior personnel in Britain’s Government Communication Service.

A report on the visit, obtained under FOI, reveals key parts of the advice that will shape Mr Varadkar’s controversial PR operation.

Among the findings brought back from the meeting were that there was “audacity in simplicity” and that “citizen needs are more important than government needs”.

The trip was undertaken by John Concannon, the director of the SCU, and Andrea Pappin, another of the leading officials from the unit.

The report on the meeting was filled with suggestions on how the UK had made a success of their ‘GREAT Britain’ communications plan.

However, it made no mention of Brexit and the string of missteps in how the British government has managed that message.

A review of the meeting said there were five key takeaways for Leo Varadkar’s spin unit.

They were that everything is based on hard evidence and data, the importance of citizen needs, simplicity, collaboration and technology, and “authority versus central control”.

The review document said that every meeting, initiative, and campaign in the UK was “grounded in data”.

“Insight is constantly gleaned from own-commissioned market research, website and social media traffic, and constant engagement with key sector[s],” it said.

“It was noticeable how much time is spent listening to key audiences and reviewing the insight before campaigns were devised.”

They said that evaluation of government work was automatic to figure out how many people had been reached, how much had been saved, or what else had been achieved.

The Strategic Communications Unit were also given a clear warning of the dangers of getting caught in a political “bubble”.

“There was a strong awareness of the government bubble and the difference between that and the ‘actual’ needs of citizens,” the document said.

“Every time, the needs of the citizen … was put ahead of Whitehall or the Parliamentary Bubble.”

The head of the Government Communication Service Alex Aiken had apparently told them: “We are all about the public good.”

The SCU were also told that simplicity was audacious, where all communications plans were clean, clear, and understood by all.

“One page was delivered instead of 45 – and where possible it was visual,” said the review document.

They explained how the ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign had been uncompromising in its standards, looking to create jobs.

The brief said: “In fact all of this work had at its heart a simple aim – to be the best. According to UN rankings, they are.”

There was a small army of PR people working on behalf of the UK government, around 3,000 in total, along with twenty department heads of communications, and a twelve-strong management board for strategic communications.

The UK team also suggested a series of simple rules that were designed to “keep standards high and bureaucracy low”.

The report explained: “It was stressed that this was not about ‘central control’, rather the work was deemed professional assurance for the government communications industry.”

Standards, templates, brand guidelines, and user guides were applied to all campaigns with a close watch kept on them.

All campaigns costing over €10,000 had to be run past the government strategic communications and work off a clear template before being allowed to progress.

Incentives were also offered as part of the larger GREAT Britain campaign, they said.

“There is a pool of monies for which [overseas] Ambassadors can apply for local events. Only the Ambassador can apply for the monies, and only after working with their fellow agency teams on the ground.”

A government spokesperson said: “The Irish government wants to learn from best practice in how best to inform citizens about State services, and how best to simplify and streamline its communications.”

They said the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Canada and New Zealand had all “streamlined” their communications strategies at government level.

“Staff from this Department therefore visited London to meet key members of the UK’s civil service communications team,” said the government spokesperson. “These meetings looked at best practice on a range of topics, including digital communications, from the country ranked #1 for eGovernment by the UN.”

The Strategic Communications Unit has been dogged by controversy since it was established by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar early this summer.

Mr Varadkar had originally said the unit would require “no additional spending” and that its costs would be met from “existing allocations”.

The cost of the unit was subsequently revealed to be €5 million per annum and it was described by one Fianna Fáil politician Dara Calleary as a “cheerleading machine”.

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