Guide to COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS for Government Communicators


“Common Sense ain’ t common”

Will Rogers


OK! OK! I give up. For many years I have counselled colleagues and clients in the Public Sector to adopt a marketing approach to their communications. The response I usually receive is, we are not doing marketing but communications. Or government is not in the marketing business, that’s the domain of the private sector , we are in the communications business.

Sometimes the result is a poor ineffective communications initiative that has little impact but seems to satisfy the senior folks and especially those on the political side. ( It always amazes me that the politicians who when trying to get elected use every innovative marketing technique to get elected, but once in office consider marketing as a “demon from outer space” . How many times have I heard political staff shocked that government would consider using marketing techniques when they are the biggest users of marketing . Strange!

I guess marketing is only valid when you want to persuade voters to elect you but once elected it does not make sense to use marketing techniques to persuade people to change their behaviour (social marketing ) use marketing to sell their policies ( policy marketing) or using marketing to sell government products and services.

Many bureaucrats, especially at the senior levels, when hearing the words marketing, equate it as some form of “hucksterism”. One senior bureaucrat wondered why a marketing guy like me was  working  in government.

I can go on but you get the point.

So here is the question … what does a marketing consultant who works with the public sector do when he can’t sell the concept of marketing in the public sector (which in my view is one of the biggest marketing failure of all times ).

Well, here is an idea that might sell. From now on when I meet with public sector clients, (especially those who work in the government communications area) I will not use the word  marketing. What I will call what I do now is  COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS, it may not be sexy but perhaps it will open the door to better communications in government. So you may ask  what would be the major components of COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS?

Well this is not an exhaustive list but here are a few things to “chew on”.

“If you build it or publish it , they won’t come.” If you produce a publication and do not have a distribution plan to reach your target audience, they won’t get your publication. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Well do a tour of Ottawa or Washington or any state/provincial capital and check out the warehouses  full of “dated”government publications. Eventually many of these print products end up in the land fill or recycle boxes. Well at least it keeps the printing trade in business.

The other part of “build it and they will come” is the web. You would be amazed at the number of “bright lights” who think that if they “build a web site” the intended target group will “beat down their doors” to get to your web site. The presumption is, if you build it and you do not tell anybody that you build it they will discover it by “Googleling” your site or come across it by surfing the net. So COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS would suggest that if you build a site make sure that it is “user friendly”, interactive and easy to find and  oh yes… let your target group  know about it. Don’t keep it a secret. Pretty simple wouldn’t you say? I can go on about using web 2.0 etc. But for today let’s just deal with some of the basics as we do not want to complicate things here. 

Another part of COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS is segmentation , Oh there’s that marketing term… can’t use that so how about something simple, if you are communicating a message, it is probably useful to break up your audience into relatively homogeneous, but distinct segments (there is no such thing as the general public or as some communicators like to call it “gen pop”) .

Also if you have a specific message that you need to get to a certain target audience or segment why would you target everyone. Does this make sense? And guess what …you may find that different segments of the general public may need to get different messages as “one size fits all” may not be effective. For example if you were running a campaign aimed at parents and youth do you think it makes sense to deliver the same message, employing  the same media tactic(s). Obviously not!

Another good reason to segment the “gen pop” is you may be wasting your money . For example if you are involved in a campaign to change behaviour, which the government from time to time attempts to do, but does not want to call it social marketing ( there goes that marketing word again) it makes sense to find out who in the “gen pop” is not “complying” or doing the appropriate behaviour. No this is not “Orwellian”, the “Nanny State” or “Social Engineering”. Sometimes the government needs to remind citizens  to wear a seat belt, do not drink and drive, recycle, prepare for an emergency, etc. If you are going to send some messages out there it might be a good idea or common sense  to find out who is not wearing a seat belt or not recycling and channel your message to this group.

Another feature of COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS is to dispel the myth that providing information to people leads  them to taking action. Some communicators believe that if they can just get information out to their target audience they have done their job. Now think about all the information you personally receive every day through the media, direct marketing, Internet etc. . Do you act on all the information you receive? Obviously not! That’s why COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS understands that you may need to use some persuasive strategies and techniques to get people to take action. The field of marketing of course is full of these techniques and strategies but we have to be careful here as we don’t want to do anything that has any link to marketing.

So here are some ideas from COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS. Before you communicate to your segments of the general public ,it may be a good idea to do some research to find out what these folks are thinking before you communicate to them and guess what… you may be able to develop messages and tactics that resonate with the segment(s) your  targeting. Let’s not call this marketing research but “analysis of your target audience”. You may want to discover current behaviour, knowledge, attitudes and values of target audiences, knowledge gaps or barriers that discourage segments of the “gen pop” from doing what you want them to do. e.g barriers. You may be able to obtain this information  from  research that has been done by others (secondary research) or research that you do yourself ( oh one more thing if you do some research it is usually a good idea to ensure that the research results are well analyzed from a communications perspective and yes one more thing… that you actually read the research report.)

Another part of COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS is to set objectives so that you are able to measure the effectiveness of your communications. I am not talking about how many publications you have distributed or how many visits or hits to your web site . This is not about outputs but outcomes . It may be useful to look at the overall impact of your communications initiative.

For example surveys of the target audience are effective for measuring outcomes. Surveys can be completed by telephone, on-line, mail, or in person. Of course there are many techniques to measure effectiveness of communication and we will not deal with that today, just want to instill the common sense approach that it is a good idea to develop measurable objectives and monitor and evaluate your communications.

Oh and one last thing from COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS, if you prepare a plan you need to implement it. Yes I know this sounds ridiculous but there are thousands of communications plans that are sitting in the filing cabinets in capital cities across North America that have never seen the “light of day”

Well this is my first blog on COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS ( maybe I should get the term  trade marked ) and I hope in the coming weeks and months to publish a number of blogs on COMMON SENSE COMMUNICATIONS in Government with the fervent hope that government communicators will take up this concept for all their communications.  If you have any ideas or suggestions that we can include in future blogs please e-mail me at


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