Reputation and relationship: rethinking approaches to public sector marketing

Published on Friday, 17 February 2012 14:10
Written by Mark Blayney Stuart

Since the 2010 Spending Review placed a freeze on government marketing, few public awareness campaigns have been getting the go ahead.  In December last year, Conservative health minister Simon Burns noted that the government spent £60.3m on health advertising campaigns in 2009/10, compared to just £4.2m in 2010/11

Furthermore, a number of campaigns have had their funding cut completely: Flu vaccination, sexual health and teenage pregnancy, drugs and alcohol misuse campaigns all suffered substantial budget reductions in the coalition government's first year in office(1). Public sector marketing campaigns are still among the first victims of the tightening of the public purse strings - but while the resources has dwindled the need for such campaigns has not.

Cuts to public sector marketing budgets are mirrored by much-maligned cuts to public services themselves.  At a time when the public sector is coming under attack from all angles, it makes sense to protect the marketing budget, not reduce it: when services and spending are reduced, public sector bodies’ brands and reputations become more valuable than ever.  The public sector will need to be more imaginative and innovative in 2012, both in the way it secures campaign funding and, perhaps more importantly, in the way that it perceives the role of marketing altogether.

Much public sector marketing is concerned with effecting behaviour change – with persuading people to stop smoking, or to eat more healthily – and the success of such campaigns is notoriously difficult to quantify,  not least because the financial benefits might be felt over decades, not months.  It is important, therefore, that, when thinking about this type of marketing, the public sector recognises its value in building brands and developing reputations.  While, for example, a campaign might ostensibly be encouraging people to eat more healthily, it can also have the very valuable secondary effect of positioning the local NHS trust as a trustworthy, personable and helpful body.    

It’s easy to forget the power of marketing to develop the reputation of a public sector body but, now more than ever, it’s important to position local authorities, health trusts and other public organisations as human and approachable.  Using ‘brand ambassadors’ is one way to do this: it’s widely understood that using a ‘real’ firefighter or nurse in a campaign inspires trust and acceptance in audiences.

Social media also offer innovative ways for public sector bodies to engage directly with their users, immediately increasing interaction and building trust in the organisation, what it represents and the advice that it delivers.  Many private sector companies use Twitter as an extension of their customer service department; local councils could easily adopt this to distribute information regarding council services.  YouTube also offers a fantastic channel for public organisations to emphasise their human face: a series of ‘day in the life’ videos following staff in their day to day work would be quick and easy to implement and provide content that can be pushed to multiple marketing channels. 

When budgets are stretched and public sector brands threatened, imaginative and innovative marketing offers a means of promoting the good work done by public bodies and developing an invaluable relationship with users.  It’s also possible to combine service provision – such as behaviour change marketing or customer service – with the positioning of the organisation as open and personable.  In challenging times, the reputations and relationships developed by marketing become more valuable than ever.  

(1) Marketing magazine, 7 December 2011

 

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