Digital transformation is changing how governments can communicate with citizens. In this post, we’ll look at how the law is shaping public administration communications in Italy.
Communication is a key lever when it comes to business.
For brands/companies to be successful, they must be able to effectively communicate their products and services to the market and when an effective communication strategy is developed, the benefits aren’t only financial.
Let’s take the example of the successful American brand known for its aspirational television commercials. In 2018, it launched a new advertising campaign that featured, among others, Colin Kaepernick, the football player who became famous for kneeling in protest during the national anthem. Thanks to this strategy, the brand’s online sales increased by 31% in a single day.
Likewise, a poor communication strategy can damage a company’s reputation and profits. In another famous case, a well-known Danish jewellery company launched a Christmas holiday advertising campaign that was seen as sexist, triggering a flood of angry messages on social networks and calls to boycott the brand.
A famous Italian fashion brand found itself in a similar situation a few months ago when, after a culturally insensitive commercial, the brand had to cancel several important events in China, risked a diplomatic incident and eventually resulted in the brand closing stores. The brand’s namesake designers issued excuses, narrowly avoiding a complete crisis that would have caused them to lose an important share of the market.
These examples underscore the importance of communication as an essential tool that must be consistently employed to obtain the maximum benefits.
But does this only apply to the private sector or also to the public sector?
Communication in Public Administration – a definition
Like brands, effective communication is also essential for public administration.
However, communication in the public sphere is quite different. There are, in fact, two different definitions of public communication, one subjective and one objective.
The subjective definition establishes that all forms of communication coming from the Public Administration are public communications. But what about companies who provide public services or those in which the government have a stake? Can their communication still be considered public, although their organizational structure is closer to the private model?
Objective communication depends on the subject matter, which should relate to matters of general interest. In light of this, it is possible to distinguish four different phenomena, which are sometimes confused:
- The communication of the public institution, which coincides with that of the subjective definition;
- Social communication, which aims to raise public awareness of issues considered to be of shared urgency and to propose appropriate solutions;
- Political communication, which is almost entirely the prerogative of political parties, movements and other political organizations and aims to mobilize public opinion by directing consensus;
- Internal communication, which is functional in nature and relates to the organisational and management structures of the bodies.
Communication in Public Administration – the regulatory framework
Communication is also important in Public Administration because it contributes to the realization of a fundamental principle for government systems: transparency.
In Italy, this was introduced by law number 15/2005 which establishes the obligation for all Public Administrations to make their actions visible to the public.
This enables citizens, whether individuals or social groups, to be aware of what the government is doing, to know how it functions, and to be able to exercise their rights as citizens.
Another important Italian law that must cited is n. 150/2000, which concerns the activities of information and communication of public administrations.
This law is important because, for the first time, it differentiated between the three main communication activities, obliging the press office to provide information to the mass media, and making the official public relations office responsible for external and internal communication. This established three main structures for public communication:
1) the official spokesperson who communicates on behalf of the government to citizens;
2) the Press Office, which is made up of personnel enrolled in the national register of journalists and has the task of continuously maintaining relations between the institution and the media;
3) the Public Relations Office, which is designed to interface directly with citizens.
Other laws have been added to these over the years. Over time, and especially through technological innovation, public communication has been enriched by regulations and laws relating to accessibility, transparency, and privacy.
An important law in this regard is the so-called “Frattini Directive” of February 7, 2002, which aims to develop an integrated communication policy and to create a system of internal information flows capable of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of communication processes.
It also underlines the importance of speaking clearly and correctly in a way that is easy for any and all citizens to understand what is being communicated. To do so, it is essential that the three institutions described above have a coordinated plan, which includes monitoring.
From theory to practice: the communication plan of the Public Administration
Law 150 of 2000 already expressly provided for drawing up a communication plan, for three purposes:
- To encourage the organization and implementation of its communication policies;
- To allow the creation of an integrated communication plan that brings together external and internal communication;
- To facilitate construction of two-way relations between the Public Administration and citizens to ensure that they are continuous and consistent over time.
Rather than a simple document, communication is a planned and organized process. It is also a key element of the guidelines for the promotion of digital services issued in 2018 by AGID, the Agency for Digital Italy.
AGID has the task of ensuring that the objectives of the Italian Digital Agenda are achieved and that information and communication technologies are employed and used to encourage innovation and economic growth.
Its role is to promote the digital transformation of the country by coordinating the Public Administrations in the implementation of a three-year plan for information technology.
For this reason, last year AGID launched an online public consultation that led to the creation of ComunicaItalia, a project designed for public communication professionals with the aim of providing ideas for simplifying the planning of all activities to promote digital services.
The Guidelines for the Promotion of Digital Services, which are part of the initiative, are divided into three pillars: Storytelling, Marketing, and Communication.
A significant part of this last chapter is dedicated to the creation of a Communication Plan for the Public Administration, of which the main phases are identified.
First of all, it is necessary to analyze both the service being offered to citizens and of the audience to which it is addressed. To achieve this, it may be useful to look at what has been done before by others who have had to communicate the same things, so that they can be inspired and improved where possible.
The analysis phase is fundamental because it allows the creation of content that can be effective and relevant for citizens. In this sense, it is very useful to divide the audience into precise and defined clusters, so that the message conveyed can be as targeted as possible.
Another important step is the definition of KPIs, i.e. the communication objectives to be pursued. They must be clear, specific, achievable, and above all, measurable, in order to understand if the communication has been effective. Finally, the data will help define the digital channels to be used to reach citizens. In this sense, an effective Communication Plan is always based on an effective Media Plan.
In this phase, the service being communicated has its own life cycle, which goes from the pre-launch phase to the phase of maximum use. In the light of this, it will be possible to decide which channels to activate and to what extent.
Another variable to take into account is the target you want to reach and the habits of that target. For this reason, the combination of online and offline channels could be activated together or separately, depending on the type of service and the timing of the communication.
Equally important, after these preliminary considerations, is the type of content used; this must also be considered in the context of the audience and the channel you are using.
In any case, it is of fundamental importance to always be clear and direct, without taking anything for granted: communication, in fact, must be above all a tool to help citizens.
For this reason, it is essential that the user himself is involved. This, among other things, provides a better “customer experience” for citizens, which is the best way to gain their trust and improve the reputation of the Public Administration.
Finally, a complete Communication Plan must also include verification of the results based on the objectives to understand what can be improved and what may be repeated for future communications.
Public Administration and the digital revolution
The phases of the Public Administration’s Communication Plan coincides with the phases of a digital marketing strategy. In fact, digital marketing also involves the use of data to be able to identify the correct approach and then verify the objectives.
Furthermore, a digital marketing strategy also requires use of several channels, both traditional and digital, to enrich the customer experience and exploit all available touch points in a harmonious and effective manner.
In a nutshell, this parallelism cannot come as a surprise, given that the Public Administration has to deal more and more with digitization, which involves not only the nature of the services but also the type of communication to be used.
With increasingly more Italians using the internet in general, and social networks specifically, it is essential that the communication strategy is informed by user habits and preferences when using digital channels.
Consequently, the more that public administrations become digital, customers will expect to have the same type of customer experience offered by public companies.
The challenge for Public Administrations of the future is precisely this: to provide digital services and to communicate them in an innovative way, using a communication strategy that exploits the approach of digital marketing and the communicative potential made possible by digital transformation.
Some administrations have already started to move in this direction, but there is still a long way to go.
It will be essential for public administrations to develop professional skills that are able to manage this radical change in communication approach, which involves a more equal and two-way interaction with citizens-users and setting aside old habits and passive communication styles.
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