Last week, the Government of Canada issued its much-anticipated new Communications Policy and companion directive for the management of the function.
If you’re a federal communicator, this is obviously big news. Less obvious is that it’s also highly relevant for non-federal communications professionals working more generally in the Canadian public or para-public sectors (e.g. institutes, other levels of government, associations/NGOs working collaboratively at the federal level through funding or joint initiatives).
Highly relevant, because it can be your secret weapon.
When dealing with internal conflict, disagreement or disconnect regarding what communications is, and what it should be empowered to do, the federal Communications Policy, when used wisely, is the strategic communicator’s arm and shield. It can be very helpful to have a solid, official, current Policy directive to lean on in the very malleable landscape of the communications function. Whether the Policy governs your work directly, or is simply an external reference with currency and street cred, it can support you in stating your case.
That said, here are the top 8 things you need to know about this Policy:
- This is what open and digital by default looks like. For several months, Ottawa has been abuzz with the UK-government’s communications model and its directive to be “open and digital by default.” Up to now, this orientation has been largely left to interpretation, effectively stalling efforts for adoption (particularly since it’s antithetical to many of the established practices, habits and cultures). Now however, the federal communications directive officially codifies it stating: “digital media and platforms as the primary means to connect and interact with the public” (emphasis added). Further, the Policy states that heads of communication must “ensure that all …communications activities support the Government of Canada’s principles of open government and its practices.”
- Communications is a strategic enabler of government. The whole orientation of the Policy and directive is that communications is at the heart of a functioning of government. It’s not a back office, disconnected, ghettoized function (as it’s often been perceived), but is fundamentally integrated and essential to the government fulfilling its service and mandate for Canadians. In fact, the very first line of the Policy is “Communications are central to the Government of Canada’s work and contribute directly to the Canadian public’s trust in their government.” It goes on to direct that “The communications function is integral to developing, implementing and evaluating the government’s policies, programs, services and initiatives.” There is also a strong focus on the listening dimension of communications as the function helps the government “consider the views and interests of the public” in its work.
- Plain language is here to stay. The directive clearly states that communication must be: “Clear, timely, accurate, accessible and written in plain language.” Rejoice!
- Employee communications is under the jurisdiction of the communications function. In our consulting practice, we’ve handled dozens of assignments related to internal confusion (ok, often conflict) about the functional lead for employee communication. The new federal directive makes it clear that heads of communications are responsible for “facilitating open and collaborative communications among all employees.” Further still, the Communications Policy prescribes a particular orientation to employee communications, stating that heads of communication must “champion open, transparent and collaborative communications within their departments to foster employee knowledge and awareness of departmental and government-wide priorities.” In practice, this is the death knell of the traditional push model of top-down employee communication. Goodbye command and control, hello, open communication culture. We are no longer “email jockeys”, we are strategic enablers of the business of government.
- Web and social media are connected, and governed by communications. The same internal tensions that exist around ownership of the employee communications function also exist vis-à-vis web assets (though these conflicts tend to be even more explosive given the profile and investments related to the web). The directive makes it clear that heads of communications are responsible for “overseeing the department’s web and social media presence.” In one fell swoop, this both clarifies the stewardship of the website, and also correctly frames accountability more broadly to cover the government’s digital footprint beyond departmental web assets.
- Communicators are officially asked to challenge. It’s significant that the directive plainly stipulates that communicators have a formal challenge function. They are asked to provide “leadership, challenge, and strategic direction” for communications initiatives. Translation – if you’re disagreeing with an internal client, or asking tough questions or suggesting a better way of doing things, you’re not being difficult – you’re following the Communications Policy requirement for a challenge function. Bring it on.
- Communications is the connective tissue of government. Both the Communication Policy and directive stress the importance of communicators as connectors. There is a requirement to collaborate with partners across government, with a focus on aligning with regional colleagues. Communicators are asked to manage the coordination of departmental and horizontal communications and consultation activities.
- Evidence-based decision-making is expected. An undercurrent in the Policy and directive is its focus on evidence and research. The communicator’s role in public environment monitoring and analysis is formalized, and there is a call for departments to “develop annual public opinion research plans.” Evaluation is implicit in the context of the directive and is an explicit requirement for advertising and digital initiatives (strangely, evaluation is not otherwise stated as an expectation, which strikes me as an unusual but is likely not an accidental omission).
So my fellow communications warriors, as you go through your day-to-day work in the trenches of government or public sector communications, know that the federal Communications Policy and mandate have your back. In case of emergency, break glass and pull them out as your weapon or your shield.
You’ll see that the Policy documents also include useful, practical guidance in a wide range of areas, including media relations, engagement, regional communications, sponsorship and advertising.
For more strategies on how to navigate in the new federal communications landscape, check out this piece exploring the new rules of Government Communications as well as an analysis of the new government’s Mandate letters’ direction for communications.