Could planned communications have helped?

SimonCommunications, General

One of the political hot topics this summer is the changes to vehicle excise duty (VED) bandings announced in the budget earlier this year.

Motoring taxes, like mortgages and retail prices, are an issue that affects the vast majority of UK residents. That’s one of the reasons why there’s so much sustained media interest in this topic, long after it was first announced back in March.

A report from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has criticised the lack of a proper strategy for communicating the change. The detail was buried in a dense appendix to the main papers, leading to a lack of detailed information being available once the headline changes had been announced.

The committee’s report endorses the role of planned communication in such announcements:

“If the point of green taxes is to change behaviour, they need to be properly publicised, so that people are fully aware of what they are being encouraged to do. A failure to advertise green tax details to the public…breeds suspicion about their objectives.”

From a public relations point of view this endorses the need to address difficult topics head-on, seizing the agenda from day one. It seems that because this didn’t happen, the media agenda on this topic is being driven (excuse the pun) from the ground up. A building momentum of discontent on forums, blogs and in specialist media has gradually tipped over into the mainstream media – providing prolonged exposure to a difficult taxation message from almost six months ago.

This is a non-political blog, so I’m not getting into the rights and wrongs of the decision. I’m more interested in how more planned communication on this decision could have affected the perception of the story.

In this case even the basics seem lacking. Even now it’s hard to find an authoritative explanation of changes on a government website, beyond the basic facts about rates and banding. A more pro-active web approach could have set out the case for the changes, provided case studies about the different bandings and been open about the impact on car owners. Given the number of blog posts debating this issue, perhaps some sensitive blogger relations could have helped too?

Communicators can’t make unpopular messages popular. What they can do is ensure that the case for a difficult policy change is presented coherently and consistently as well as respond to and clarify confused reporting off and online.

The speed of policy change will always present a challenge for communicators, but I agree with the committee’s report – this is a great example of where communicators could have done more to manage the communication of this policy, rather than dealing with the fallout reactively.