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Alex Aiken, executive director, Government Communications, on leadership in communications; Brexit; and the Larry-Dilyn standoff in Downing Street

Last week, I caught up with Alex Aiken, executive director, Government Communications – who I suspect is one of the busiest people in PR.

Alex was speaking at the ICCO’s Global PR conference in Lisbon.

For those of you who haven’t heard Alex speak – you should try. As Omnicom PR’s David Gallagher Tweeted at the event “Nobody does it better. I don’t always agree (but usually do) but never fail to feel inspired”.

Ben Smith: What does good leadership look like in communications?

Alex Aiken: I'm a great fan of the civil service leadership statement that requires us to be inspiring, empowering and confident.

With inspiring, I know as a leader if I walk into office and look glum and down, people are going to say there must be something wrong.

So there's a basic need for leaders to be inspiring and then there's being really clear about the destination and the North Star that guides us.

Confidence doesn't mean brashness. It means confidence because you know your professional body of knowledge – inside, backwards, outside and so on – and can give the best advice to those that you serve.

Empowering means saying people who report to you – go on and be brilliant. I trust you to get on to do the job. I will trust you to do it, but I will retain the responsibility and those three things I try and practice.

I don't always get them right. I think it's a good guide.

BS: How effective is communications at bringing about behaviour change?

AA: It takes time. We've been running campaigns persuading people not to drink and drive for over 50 years and they've had a substantial effect. Similarly campaigns to get people to wear seatbelts – now social norms.

There's been less success on getting people to drink less alcohol, eat more fruit and vegetables. So it takes time and it's about the context. Clearly in terms of drinking alcohol there's massive marketing that says "drink lots of alcohol, gin, wine beer and so on."

That's all legitimate. But communication operates in the context. In Brexit we're very clear: Get ready for Brexit.

Get your passport, your pet passport, your trading licence, the right papers if you're hauling goods around – get them ready.

But people will inevitably say “I wonder whether it's going to happen”.

And so there are always countervailing forces to any communication campaign. But if you're creative, persistent, determined – you can usually deliver a result.

BS: Has Brexit been the biggest challenge for your career to date?

AA: Well, of course, at the time if you're a young press officer – the next press release seems like the biggest challenge of your career.

Looking back, I'm sure it will be up there in the top two. Remember I've been responsible for running the public information campaign to encourage the United Kingdom to remain in a reformed European Union under David Cameron. I've seen the withdrawal act campaign for Theresa May and now we've got to get ready for Brexit, which the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants us to deliver.

And we are determined to deliver that for the PM and the cabinet.

BS: You talked about technology in your presentation. When we were younger the internet was only a good thing, but now of course its dark side has become more apparent.

In your talk today you referred to it as a firehose of potential falsehoods. How can communicators counteract that?

AA: Every day there is a firehose of falsehood directed into the UK from various places.

Hostile states, for instance. I was looking at the state television channel of Russia. RT (Russia Today) claimed that 16,000 people will die this winter because of lack of heating in the UK. When you look at the actual story that comes from OfGem there is a very nuanced point about the dangers of people living in unheated accommodation. So that is the reality. We monitor that.

In terms of dealing with it on a long-term basis – at one end of the spectrum you've got civic education.

There's the "Don't Feed the Beast" campaign for example that is aimed at 18 to 24 year olds to try and get people to think about what they read, or watch, or listen to and whether it's correct.

And then there is the more immediate. At the other end of the spectrum we have our rapid response capability and we can challenge narratives, fake narratives, false narratives and then we can run counter brand campaigns.

Fundamentally, if you're going to counter disinformation you must have a strong story to tell about your society and why it works. And I fundamentally believe the UK is a place of laws , freedoms, respect and equality and that will define or not the success of our counter disinformation work.

BS: Do you think this threat to democracy from disinformation with continue in perpetuity?

The first government proclamation against fake news was issued in 1680.

It exists you can see it online in the Government Communications Service Museum online.

Disinformation has existed ever since the invention of the printing press, when suddenly people had this wonderful ability to print things at volume and challenge concepts like the King, or the Queen or God.

And so there was a communications revolution from the printing press and the internet is another revolution and can be used as a force for great good or sometimes for evil.

So government has a role as a guardian or watch keeper to make sure that disinformation (and it is disinformation because fake news and misinformation are something else) but we need to ensure that disinformation is minimised.

BS: You talked about behavioural science today – do you think it's under utilised currently in communications?

AA: You need a nudge to persuade communicators to adopt behavioral science. Our nudge is (the anagram) COMB

So The Capability of an audience, the Opportunity of them to undertake an action, the Motivation they might bother to do this, equals Behaviour change.

And then we have (another anagram) EAST. Which is a test of the communications intervention Easy, Accessible, Social and Timely.

We use these to try and say to people (government communications employees) – just think about your audience. You can't just blast them with material. Think about the nudges and the opportunities and whether it's a social and timely intervention.

So we (the Government Communications Service) do a lot of successful behavior change, but that's fundamentally our role – to enable people to understand how government can help them.

BS: What the key elements of telling a story for communicators today?

AA: So I'm fascinated like most communicators by stories. I've recently read Robert McKee's book Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World storynomics and McKee has an eight-stage explanation of a story.

He's a former Hollywood screenwriter, but he sums it up, as you expect from a storyteller, that every story essentially boils down to conflict creates change. And I think that conflict, that dramatisation, should be essential to our communications to show people why something is important.

More formally, we use an approach where every story has a character, people, the plot, a setting, the place we’re in place (then) the conflict and then the resolution.

And I think we need to get better at telling stories.

I hate the idea of narratives. Narratives are a justification something. A story explains why it's important.

BS: You've worked for I think five Prime Ministers now – just give us a little insight into the different personalities of the prime ministers you've worked with – from Theresa, to Cameron, to Boris – and how those different personalities influence your role as a communicator?

AA: When I was very young I was privileged to work in Conservative central office for Margaret Thatcher in the late stages of her career.

She was very definite, very determined. I did once have to tell her to shut up!

Working for John Major was a privilege. I did regional media for him. There was an occasion when I had to tell him in the foyer of Downing Street that if he was not prepared to do an interview, because he was so fed up with the press, I was going to go out and do an interview for him. He didn't like it, but he did the interview!

David Cameron was an absolute fan and supporter of government communications. He was really interested in campaigns and what worked. This meant it sometimes got into the tactical rather than strategic.

Theresa May was an honest communicator and that was appreciated by the British public who, we could see from polling, were always in support of what she was trying to do.

Boris Johnson brings a new dynamic and in a sense he's a born communicator. But again I think all those five are all great supporters of government communications.

BS: And finally the absolute nuts and bolts of Downing Street, apparently Larry the Cat is pissed off with the new dog Dilyn.

AA: We're delighted that Dilyn is part of the Downing Street family.

Dilyn is a great addition. Dilyn joins Larry, Palmerston and Gladstone who are all rescue cats and dogs from Battersea Dogs Home.

But yes Larry tends to sit in the foyer in the mornings to greet people. But I think he's been a bit thrown out by Dilyn. I believe this will be resolved.

In Downing Street there's obviously tension and the occasional argument – but normally things are resolved and we all get behind the Prime Minister. And I'm sure Larry and Dilyn will too.

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