I got a LinkedIn notification Sunday that Elul Rifman had completed a book review of Public Sector Marketing Pro on his LinkedIn profile. Elul works in government, advocacy and politics at Facebook. As the author, it's a fascinating read and I think an exceptional read providing an independent perspective.
This is a great read for any player in the field of public sector communications and marketing, and an especially recommended read for public sector communication leaders.
It is ridiculous, but this great book has been laying on my shelf for several months now. God knows why I did not read it before, but with COVID-19 and working from home, I finally picked it up. So, first thing first, if you're into government and politics marketing, do yourself a favour and buy the book. But in the meantime, I’ll try to briefly summarize my favourite quotes and my initial thoughts on this piece.
Game of Thrones
One of my most-loved notions in this book is the discussion about the shift of power in the digital era, from the government to citizens — "In the S3 Age (Social, Search, Smartphones) ... the public interest, previously dictated by civil and public servants, politicians, and policymakers, is increasingly in the hands of the people - those the government and the civil servants are there to serve" (p. 2).
This is so obvious, and yet so clever and important to diagnose; based on my personal experience at least, this is something many public leaders have yet to fully recognize. Sweeney summarizes it well: “The age of the Internet has given everyone a voice, but it has turned the tables of power. Seated now at the top of the table are prosumers, active consumers with a newfound voice ready to use at any opportunity” (p. 213)
Last week, I was participating in a (virtual) meeting with government officials who are writing a gov-internal pamphlet about digital communications for gov agencies. I’m not sure how this happened — as I wasn’t supposed to be the one around the table to preach about it — but I found myself arguing that gov entities can’t settle for paid media campaigns only as they deliver their messages. I wish I had this quote in my pocket:
"Social media serves not just your organization, but also the public interest. You have responsibility to leverage the channels to reach key audiences and deliver important messages. I challenge you, senior leaders and marketing and communications pros, to put the needs of the public ahead of your own personal bias or the reluctance around social media" (p.42)
Everyone who has worked at, or with, governments in recent years has probably heard many times about The Digital Transformation, and how important it is. This buzzword is kind of the ‘Machine Learning’ or ‘Big Data’ of the public sector world.
But Sweeney shows little mercy for those public sector leaders as she suggests, more than once, that there is a gap between the big words and reality: “There are too many influential people in government and the public sector who believe that digital is a waste of time, that social media is a bubble and that e-commerce is slang for pyramid schemes … when the boardroom fails to embrace the technological revolution, they are signing their own digital death warrant.” (p.211)
Deep in their hearts, I believe that many senior leaders will actually adhere to this statement. Despite the massive changes that already took place in the public sector, many leaders haven't fully jumped on this wagon. When it comes to communication leaders, she offers a relatively simple approach: “Digital transformation from a communications perspective is simply about having a 360-degree conversation with your citizens, stakeholders, colleagues or whomever the target audience may be” (p. 213). In other words: fully open your digital channels, and the rest will follow. But Sweeney’s formula for every public sector leader is even much simpler:
“Make your first step to transformation willingness and enthusiasm. All the knowledge you need is out there, as are the technologies and platforms, bring your people with you and transform from the inside out” (p.40)
How to Train Your Dragon
One of the things I’ve found about the Public Sector Marketing Pro is how practical it is. Sweeney has invested well in creating dozens of internal-guides, checklists, tables, and pro tips along the book (yes, one can learn what the optimized ratio for Pinterest profile pic is). This practical approach definitely comes to mind during her thesis on how to build the best communication team.
Discussing what the perfect format for a digital communication team is in 2019 is probably the most cardinal, yet least sexy, subject there is. But the author’s deep dive into the roles and titles, workflows and work plans, internal academy and upskilling process, or outsourcing marketing tasks, is inspiring. Furthermore, her decision to discuss those issues, eye to eye, straight on the book’s opening, gives you the confidence that this woman has public sector savvy.
There are so many examples in this book on how to build a great communication team, and how to train it, that I’m finding it hard to choose the best quotes. Nevertheless, let me reveal, what the ‘11 essential competencies for the perfect community manager’ are according to Sweeney: Expansive personality (a listener!); an eye for trends; creative content generator; empathy and tact; resilience in the face of trolling and abuse; the ability to automate smoothly; and passion for the project (p.90-93). Yes, I know there are only seven here. Go ahead and read the book.
Law Abiding Citizen
The marketing funnel and the consumer journey are probably among the most common concepts when discussing marketing, hence, it’s no surprise they are widely discussed in this book. Still, Sweeney successfully captures the important nuances between private and public sector funnels: “The average citizen's media journey is becoming less linear, with fewer vertical interactions between audience and organization and more horizontal interactions between various individuals online' That, in turn, results in significantly more educated citizens, who - thanks to their access to technology - have more information than ever before to make an informed decision” (p.28).
The marketing funnel that Sweeney suggests for public sector marketers is no different than the model that many advertisers around the world are following: Awareness, Discovery, Consideration, Action, Relationship, and Advocacy. But the acclimatization of the funnel, especially the lower-funnel level, to the public sector jargon, is particularly interesting. The notion of establishing relationships with the citizens (emails database and newsletters, for example), or converting those in a relationship with your gov organization into your online (and offline!) advocates is not common among many public adversities I’ve engaged with.
The Citizen Journey idea becomes particularly interesting while Sweeney engages with the Role of Mobile in Public Sector: "We look at it [Smartphone] 200 times a day in 74-second bursts, seeking answers to our biggest and smallest problems. [Public] Organizations need to ask themselves: 'Are we there to answer and to engage the public?'” (p.213). The Consumer Journey has become flatter than ever, and most businesses around the world are already thinking mobile-first. But when it comes to The Citizen Journey, many of us still humbly accept the axiom that we will fill ‘that government form’, whenever we check in to our laptop. Or as the author says: "The best way to help citizens from start to finish is to make sure they can go through all three stages [Awareness, Consideration, Decision] on your mobile site" (p.144).
Objective. Goals. KPI’s. Measurement. ROI. ROAS. You name it. These terms are being used on an hourly basis by business marketers, but somewhat less by public sector marketers. There’s a bunch of reasons why this keeps happening, but that’s probably a topic for a different time. To be fair, it’s usually on account of the organizational culture and the integral (lack of) incentives, more than a digital manager lack of professionalism, but Sweeney makes it very clear that “When preparing a social media campaign, you must be clear on your audience, objective, and metrics. Don't wing a campaign - hope is not a strategy that will work on social media” (p.53).
Sounds simple, ah? Unfortunately, it’s not always the case. The book suggests different methods to define marketing goals for a public campaign (based on the known SMART model); Discussing the metrics that matter on social media (i.e. please stop counting page likes); offering great and simple benchmarks (above 1% engagement rate on FB? You can do more); and focusing greatly on the importance of website analytics. But the most consequential action should always happen before we hit the road:
"I often begin the development of a digital marketing strategy by measuring success. I want to know which metrics matter to the government or public sector agency that I am working with. Then I re-engineer my campaign and work backwards through my success framework" (p.187)
The Never Ending Story
“There is no doubt that social media can inspire citizens to take action when they trust the government agency telling the story. however, a lack of consistent and defined messaging will have the opposite effect” (p. 62).
Maybe the most brilliant chapter in this book is about telling stories. Not necessarily about Instagram or Facebook Stories (although you should do that more!), but rather on how to tell a good story as a government authority. This is true of course, for every advertiser, but it is, indeed, harder for public sector marketers. Sweeney suggests that:
“Because public sector and government agencies often hide behind the logo of their organization, they are not inclined to be over-enthusiastic about storytelling ... As a staff member they feel conflicted about their personal versus professional self-online, and this can make them hesitant to be a face on the social web … But there is no doubt that storytelling with engaging content is a precursor for a successful social media or digital marketing campaign” (p.110)
The book lists different types of Digital Storytelling (Live, Stories, Videos, Blog, etc.), and offers 15 detailed storytelling techniques, ranging from ‘the people behind’ to ‘how-to guides’. It also describes the great ‘four 4 P’s’ framework to incorporate storytelling to public sector communications (Personal, People, Priority, Passion), and even devotes a unique chapter to the wonderful tool of Live Video (that has become even more popular and critical nowadays).
But the real story of storytelling for gov is to implement this kind of thinking as a way of life, and not just as a practical checklist that one should mark ‘done’ every now and then. This concept should be part of the government agency’s day-to-day and implemented as part of the organization’s tone of voice, which is discussed in the Social Media Strategy chapter: “One of the critical parts of designing a social media strategy is establishing your voice. This is true both of businesses and the public sector, or anyone who wants to build their social media presence. Visitors to your page want consistency, they want to know that they can trust your page to provide them with consistently accurate” (p.83).
This is a great read for any player in the field of public sector communications and marketing, and an especially recommended read for public sector communication leaders. It covers many other topics that are not mentioned above in a clear and actionable language. Two chapters are exclusively designated to Crisis Management and Emergency Response. Both sections I’ve found particularly interesting reading these days.
I did find the examples in the book many times as fine, not more. As the cases did not always showcase the core government entities that influence our life the most (e.g., Central Health Authority, Education, Welfare, etc.), and in most cases the examples originated in Ireland only (vs international). Another topic I was hoping to find in this book, but I was not satisfied about it, is the discussion about Brand Building for Gov entities (which is, in my opinion, is the hardest government communication task there is). How can and should a public sector market invest in brand marketing, and when one can take advantage of the powerful concepts of Direct Response?
Finally, although the author declared the book is intended for both government and political actors, the focus is definitely on ‘classic’ government bodies. But don’t get me wrong, this is great, as there is a lack of excellent materials for this audience, and it’s in the best interest of all us citizens of the world, especially nowadays, that the public sector communication is best in class.
The Easter Egg
I was laughing so hard while reading this one, as this is the question I get at almost every engagement with partners, so I will definitely steal this one: “One of my most frequently asked questions is: 'How often should 1 post on X social network?' The answer is contained in these three key points: 1) Posting consistency is more important than posting frequency; 2) Content quality is more important than content quantity (and social networks are letting us know this with ongoing algorithm changes); 3) Without having an objective for social media, you won't know if your posts are successful or not” (p.78).