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From student activist to top government comms chief: Alex Aiken’s career

Many stars of today’s communications profession started out wanting to be journalists, and Alex Aiken, executive director for government communications, began by editing his school magazine. His passion for politics soon followed and by the time he was at university, he was already making his voice heard. Aiken says: “I got into communications through politics. I was active in students politics and the students union at the London School of Economics and that early experience of campaigning gave me a passion for identifying effective communication techniques.”

Whilst at uni in the late 1980s, the arrival of new technology was beginning to revolutionise communications, Aiken explains some of the effects he noticed: “The first Apple Macs arrived and made producing comms material much easier. I remember computing students telling us about the computer network JANET and the early web which reinforced my view that comms was an exciting and developing area.”

Discussing how he got his first professional break, Aiken says it was whilst he was working in a temporary role at the Department for Transport, in pensions administration: “I was called by Conservative Central Office and offered a role as a press officer. It had remembered the media work I’d done as a student and needed to recruit some people ahead of the general election campaign in 1992. I handed in my resignation the next day and walked over Lambeth Bridge to Smith Square and started to learn the ropes in public relations, with a phone and a word processor. “

Since then Aiken’s career has moved onwards and upwards, with a few twists, but no wrong turns. “I’ve tried new things – moving from press to campaigns at the Conservative Party enabled me to widen my skills. And I’ve very proud of the role I played at Oldham Council leading its comms function over 2011-12, spending time in Manchester whilst still working for Westminster. I Iearnt a lot about the challenges and huge potential of our country outside London.“ 

Aiken is fiercely proud to be a civil servant, and enthuses about the benefits of working in the communication service: “I am surrounded by hugely capable colleagues who are interesting, challenging and committed to public service. You go into government service to improve lives – through shaping policies and delivering services that help people succeed. I’m proud of the role that the Government Communication Service plays in enabling people to make the most of services. I’d highlight the GREAT campaign and its role in expanding trade and tourism. The successful Apprenticeship campaigns, the work on pensions and tax changes as examples of the successful campaigns provide immense job satisfaction. Every day.”

Discussing the future of the communications industry, Aiken says that it is vital for PROs to take the lead and make sure they always offer the best advice, honestly articulated and based on accurate professional knowledge. With one last plug for the civil service he adds: “I’d also advise them to read the new GCS Communication Futures publication and think about the need for all communicators to be data analysts, adept at behaviour-change techniques, creating great multi-platform content and building alliances with like-minded people and organisations.”

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