Government communications that promote dialog

A study by the SVI Endowed Chair for Marketing and Dialog Marketing at SHB

As society continues to change in complex ways, balances of power in party politics have to cope with new rules of play. Societal change also rewrites the requirements that define successful communication between governments and their citizens. To establish political legitimacy, governments use a number of vehicles to communicate with the public. The Internet, brochures, press ads, posters and even events tell people what their government has to say. Governments can also conduct PR activities for the press as well as radio and TV outlets to help disseminate information on a broader scale. The overarching aim: to make governments’ activities more transparent and involve citizens as much as possible in the reform process. But what underpins governments’ successful communication? Jana Heinze, a Ph.D. candidate at the SVI Endowed Chair for Marketing and Dialog Marketing at the School of Management and Innovation at Steinbeis University Berlin, is investigating this very topic.

Given this situation, the SVI Endowed Chair conducted an empirical study on German government communications at the national and state level. The study was intended to draw a map that would empirically capture the key categories of government commu-nications to be explored as well as identify defining features that had been shaped by the system and its players. In the first stage, twelve spokespeople from state governments and the federal government were interviewed in their capacity as experts. Follow-up empirical analyses will include a written questionnaire for state governments in Germany as well as focus group analyses with citizens. This research project is receiving the gracious support of Deutsche Post.

The first research question focused on the size of the communication budget, how it was allocated, and the staff resources that state governments and the federal governments have available. Using the communications budgets of large companies as a benchmark, the study showed that the government has a limited budget, which considerably restricts the planning and use of communication vehicles. Given the tax financing, the hurdles that government communications must clear as they compete to get their message across in a crowded arena are high ones. Whereas large companies can generate a high volume of communications that take the form of press ads, spots and posters – and ideally target them to very specific groups – governments must work with a comparably lower budget yet communicate complex political messages to the general public. Compared to companies, this puts governments in an outsider’s role when fighting for the public’s attention, something that is a most precious commodity. Although research points to the benefits of using inter-agency communications more aggressively, this latest spot-check reveals a trend toward Germany’s federal agencies communicating independently of one another, especially in relation to the federal government’s press office.

The second research question looked at influencing factors and overall conditions which determine the arena of government communications. Changes in media take center stage; they could also be described as growth, acceleration and competitive pressure. These changes go hand in hand with the changing ways that target groups are consuming media – another result of the shift toward individuation. In light of this sea change, government communications could not ask for a better time to explore fresh approaches in identifying how to address target groups. The research is clear: Experts consider (Internet-based) vehicles to promote dialog a suitable way to circumvent the advertising filter and speak to citizens directly.

The thrust of the third research question was the communication channels that come into play for government communications. These channels are twofold in nature. Although the experts are primarily focused on directly and indirectly influencing the media via public relations, they also aim to pinpoint measures targeted directly at ordinary people, such as campaigns or brochures. However, these play a smaller role, due in particular to financial limitations. In line with other studies addressing government communications, the Internet has grown considerably more important among other individual communication vehicles. Communication forms designed to promote dialog help reveal just how much latitude government communications has. By prying apart the exclusive exchange of information between the government and media, these new forms create an opportunity to speak directly with citizens and involve them in framing policies. Here, the government functions in its ostensible role as a “communications interface,” closing the gap between itself and citizens by adopting a “caseworker for civic interests” mindset.

The scope of the fourth research question covered two areas: the spectrum of what government communications is supposed to do in a twenty-first century democracy, and the objectives based on courses of action that key players set themselves. One of the central aims of government communications is to provide information to involve every citizen, thus helping to legitimize democratically elected institutions. The repertoire that drives the spokespeople’s courses of action with regard to political players in the background embraces objectives that legitimize as well as objectives that are directed at power.

Found in the fifth research question, the detailed analysis of the structural framework of government communications reveals a number of indicators as to how and where government communications can bring itself up to date. (For details, see Kommunikationsreform. Drei Perspektiven auf die Zukunft der Regierungskommunikation, published in 2008 by the Bertelsmann Foundation in Gutersloh, Germany). The first control variable concerns the institutional legacy and resource allocation of government communications. An integrated communications strategy that is designed across multiple agencies and globally communicated can defuse the tension that arises between the autonomy of the ministries and the policymaking powers of the German chancellor – a tension that is also tied directly to the already low communications budget. As a result, it will prove essential to use the limited resources of government communications – both in terms of staffing and budget – efficiently and effectively. Immediate and continuous monitoring is also urgently needed to monitor the effectiveness of communication vehicles. Given rising costs and losses due to scattershot approaches in mass communications, today’s tools used in government communications must be put under scrutiny. The second control variable in modernizing government communications pertains to the dialog potential of government communication and to relating to target groups. Whereas companies have long since responded to this development and redistributed their communications budgets to benefit dialog vehicles, government communications is just beginning to cultivate a sustainable culture of political dialog. Excellent examples of this already in use are participatory budgeting and the communications platform aigner. The detailed analysis of the structural framework of government communications also reveals a number of indicators on how to implement various (dialog) communication vehicles in government communications. Here, the strategic springboard is and will remain PR work in the ministries; joined with the Internet to disseminate information, PR work will be able to reach a large target group. While reflecting the character of an integrated communications strategy, this broader appeal should be more aggressively supported by dialog communication forms to ultimately foster improved civic discourse in the public realm. International role models such as the United States have demonstrated that it is possible to involve citizens in a systematic fashion, both during election season and terms of office.


Jana Heinze
Prof. Dr. Dr. Helmut Schneider

SVI Endowed Chair for Marketing and Dialog Marketing
School of Management and Innovation at Steinbeis-Hochschule Berlin (Berlin/Stuttgart)

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