Are partnerships the right route for government comms?

Being slightly nerdy, I’m quite a fan of the Government Communications Networks guidance documents, and I have to say that their latest one on Communications Partnership Strategies is a particularly good one Although obviously aimed at those in the public sector, it’s also a clear and straightforward guide relevant for charities looking at commercial partnerships, as well as helpful for those in the commercial sector thinking of closer working with government, but unsure of the parameters.

Of course, what it avoids (and indeed should) is the wider controversy about whether and how government should be working with commercial providers, and getting the balance right between voluntary partnerships and legislation. Alcohol and obesity are obviously key areas for debate – the BMA feels strongly that legislative measures such as minimum alcohol pricing and banning marketing unhealthy food to young people are needed, whereas the current government approach seems to be more one of working with key players in this area to enact change.

One player announcing big changes this week is Coca-Cola, who globally have made a series of pledges to help combat obesity – – including stopping advertising to under 12s, putting calories on the front of its packaging and supporting physical activity programmes in every market it does business. Now, I’m not saying that in itself this is going to change obesity overnight – and yes, I’m sure the money they put into this will be dwarfed by their overall marketing budget – but what it does indicate is the extent to which people wanting to work with sectors with a growing image problem are pushing at an open door.

I once remember someone telling me that, if you took out the fact they sold cigarettes, tobacco companies had some of the best CSR programmes out there. It’s a flippant example (and a few years old now) but recognizes the opportunities presented by the need for a ‘licence to operate’ – and the way in which the big name players are willing to make changes voluntarily to stay on the right side of public opinion, as much as government ministers. Whatever you think of initiatives like the Public Health Responsibility Deal (, a lot of people have signed up to do a lot of good things, without the antagonism and general fuss created by legislation.

Of course, this is all about balance. Where this has the potential to become dangerous is where, in order to secure a voluntary concession, something larger and more important is dropped, and the ‘stick’ of legislation is lost altogether. It’s often forgotten that some of the most effective behavioural change and health improvement campaigns have been a combination of public information, partnership working and legislation – and may not have worked so well without the latter. But whilst legislation is slow and controversial, government is right to try to get the most from partnership working in the meantime – and professionalizing their approach to them can only have a positive effect.

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