James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Should the Government be communicating more? It’s a question that has consistently come up since Theresa May took office. David Cameron commented on everything, Theresa May says little publicly. She has given a few interviews recently, but it’s clear her team won’t be providing a steady stream of announcements.
Number 10 are right to limit May’s public comment – in the form of speeches, interviews and general policy announcements. While it might frustrate the media, Number 10 are right: May’s job is running the country. She will make more impact if she comments only on the biggest issues.
Such an approach can only work if Number 10 give complete clarity on May’s policy priorities and her governing themes. And it can only work if the rest of the Whitehall machine – above all, the Departmental communications teams – supply lots of material that pushes these priorities and themes.
This will ensure both that the media understand the Government’s overall agenda – and therefore ideally report within that context – and that they also have material to broadcast, print, or upload to drive that overall agenda.
It isn’t credible to avoid giving the media things to report on. If the Government doesn’t do that, someone else will.
On the first of these – highlighting May’s policy priorities and governing themes – Downing Street have done well. It’s clear what May believes in: governing for all, not just business and the poorest; a Brexit deal that’s good for the country and meets the expectations of leave voters; regeneration of great provincial towns and cities; and fairness for those the system has not treated well in the past (ethnic minorities being the obvious example).
On the second of these – the Departments’ ability to generate good new material – it’s a mixed bag. The Department for Health recently announced they were looking at restricting health tourism, which is a truly, extraordinarily popular policy (look at the numbers).
The Department for Education announced Grammar Schools which, whatever your view on them, are popular on the face of it and which can be positioned as a policy for the urban working class and lower middle class.
But overall, the Whitehall machine is not regularly pumping out positive material to drive May’s agenda. The danger of this is that Number 10’s clarity is slowly undermined because there isn’t enough material to bring their policy priorities and governing agenda to life. There’s a danger they will look abstract or entirely aspirational, rather than real.
When I was a Departmental Director of Communications, there was literally no central coordination from Downing Street. That isn’t the problem now.
What seems to be a problem, something I tried to resolve at Education, is that the Departments still don’t take a campaign approach to communications – where the communications teams have an agreed overall narrative, clear messages, and policy ideas in a long-term planner to get things out in the right way.
For the communications teams at Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, a 2017 priority must be to get the Departments into this mindset and to commission policy material for as soon as possible, as this takes time. May is right to speak sparingly, but the Government needs to be saying a great deal more.