The role of public sector social marketing in a challenging financial climate

Michael Hallsworth of the Institute of Government and the author of the behaviour change guidance, Mindspace, recently wrote an article in Public Services magazine arguing that at this time of change “Public sector social marketing, has a role in cutting costs, decentralisation and creation of the Big Society“.

No doubt some of the issues he raises will also be looked at in more detail at the World Social and Non-Profit Marketing Conference on 11/12 April, where TCC will be tabling a number of research papers.

Hallsworth very clearly sets outs the challenges social marketing faces at a time of significant cuts to Government communications and marketing budget. Today, for example, the Government announced fundamental changes to Government Direct Communication and the role of the Central Office of Information (COI), with the report calling for a more strategic approach to direct and paid-for communications.

Hallsworth, in his article, speculated that:

“…the Coalition Government appears to believe that marketing is something properly done by the private, not public sector. Indeed, it is striking how positively the Government welcomes social marketing by the private sector, seeing it as a key element in the fight against obesity, for example.”

Since the article was written, we have seen some evidence of this with the launch of the Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal earlier this week which we blogged about here.

Whilst government support for behaviour change is very strong, it seems the fear of accusations of nannying, means instead of direct communication or engagement, the government is now seeking to “Nudge” others, such as other private sector or voluntary organisations  to do the nannying of people for it! As Michael Hallsworth comments:

“We all know that behavioural economics has captured the imagination of policy makers recently. And, through the popularity of Richard Thaler’s and Cass Sunstein’s book, Nudge, the Government has caught the bug as well. There’s an opportunity for social marketing to tap into this popularity. Currently, though, the perception that social marketing is communications suggests it is based on ‘telling people what to do’, rather than nudging them in certain directions. Yet the best (but not all) social marketing uses much of the same theory as nudging; it just packages it in a different way.”

Whilst this approach may be a rational response to current financial situation, Hallsworth makes a similar point to the one we made in our blog posting that local interventions should be the way forward:

“…many of the most effective campaigns take place at a local level (Knowsley Primary Care Trust’s Pitstop programme produced impressive reductions in death rate inequalities). So there is a need to show social marketing goes with the grain of current changes in government structures.”

as well as this point about local empowerment through skills training of advocates at the most local level:

“…helping non-state actors use social marketing techniques can be seen as a crucial step to achieving the Big Society as a whole – which, of course, itself requires significant and widespread changes in behaviour.

“But perhaps the most immediate gain from embracing the Big Society is that it moves social marketing away from perceptions of nannying.  Rather than solely being something that is ‘done’ to people by the Government, social marketing becomes a skill that government can help others to develop and use – for the good of all.”

Indeed this approach might also respond rather effectively to the Government Communications Review’s main point that:

“It is proposed that activity will be concentrated in fewer areas of focus and to targeted audiences, so that Government communications is more effective and so that the Government is not aiming multiple messages at the same audience.”

The point about targeted audiences is important. As we have regularly stressed here, people’s differing values means they often do not all respond to unsegmented messages. Whether it is driven by cost imperatives or not, a more targeted approach to messages, derived from research insight, is needed to ensure government public information communications are actually listened to and then acted upon by the people they are aimed at.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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