Australian Government,  Blog post,  Communication Strategy

Back to basics: My lessons from working with the Cook Islands Government

Over the past few months, I have been doing some work with the Cook Islands Government. Working on the community consultation for the national economic strategy was a fantastic experience.

I don’t often share details about the projects I am working on, but this one made me stop and think about how I deliver communications. It took me back to the basics of communications and reminded me that simple things often work the best.

First, let me tell you a bit about the project. The Cook Islands (in case you haven’t heard of them) is a group of 15 islands in the South Pacific to the North-East of New Zealand. It has a population of 17,500, most of whom speak both English and Cook Islands Māori.

I first visited the Islands in late 2019 to help run the National Economic Development Conference. This work gave me some insights into the local community’s dynamics and how interconnected they are through family, culture, and religion.

The challenge

Fast forward to November 2020, and I was asked to help with the final consultation process on the Economic Development Strategy. COVID had delayed the release of the strategy. Heavily reliant on tourism, the Islands had been impacted by border closures, and rightly the governments’ focus had been on supporting its people. They had revised the strategy based on the current economic climate and were ready to share the draft.

The challenge with engaging anyone on the economy who is not an economist is that it can be pretty dull. We knew the key to getting community engagement to make the economy real. Often seen as an abstract concept, the communications needed to tell stories that demonstrated the economy’s impact on everyone in the community.

The plan

We set out to share the stories from across the community. Primarily, we used social media videos but also included stories in website content and factsheets. These helped to bring this topic to life. It helped demonstrate that the economy wasn’t just about the government doing things to people but impacted everyone who had a job, went to school, owned a business or worked at the local market. We wanted everyone in the community to feel compelled to share their views on the draft strategy because they understood the economy was important to them.

We went lo-fi. There wasn’t the budget or capacity in the local market to do highly produced videos. The local team hit the streets with their iPhones and did vox-pops with the community at work, on their scooters, in the market and on the street. It was a great way to tell the economic story and raised awareness of the consultation.

My favourite video was one that just wouldn’t happen here. The Prime Minister, in his Hawaiian shirt walking down the street, stopped to do a video. It was just an off the cuff comment about why he thought the economy was important. It is probably the most authentic messaging I have ever seen from a politician because it wasn’t highly scripted.

The Ministry also ran their first-ever Facebook Live event. A strong focus in the Economic Development Strategy was on innovation. For this reason, the team was also keen to try new engagement methods. As travel was still limited to the other Islands, Facebook Live was also a good way to engage those not in the capital of Avarua.

“This is something completely new, a new way of the Ministry of Finance making itself more accessible to the big wide world…” Garth Henderson, Financial Secretary.

The Facebook Live event wasn’t a big production. The Ministry Secretary facilitated a discussion with some key team members responding to pre-prepared and live questions from the online audience. At a traditional face-to-face consultation process, they would typically have around ten people attend. For the first Facebook Live event, 60 people were logged on, and the video has been watched over 5000 times.

We also created an animation to explain the strategy. We worked with a local designer who created the strategy. From start to finish, it took three days to complete. It was on television the night we approved it running as an ad and used it throughout the consultation process on Facebook.  

Lessons learnt

This project made me stop and think about the tactics we use here in Australia and the process we go through to get information out into the community. There were times when I shook my head about how simple it all was but also how effective we could be by being able to be nimble and adapt our approach when we needed to.

Here are four things I don’t want to forget about this experience:

  • Keep it simple. The approvals, the concepts, the production. We don’t need to over complicate everything. We do this so often here – where our processes and our high expectations mean we take too long to get things out the door and try too hard to get it to 100% right when 80% will probably do the job. Go back to basics.
  • Take a risk. What I loved about working with this team was their willingness to try new things and take a chance. You need to be willing to try and fail. It is the only way you will know what truly works. It helped that in a small organisation, there was none of the time-consuming hierarchy and risk-aversion that kills innovation and creativity.
  • Authenticity. The most successful communications activities in this plan were about people. The video from a lady in the market, talking in Maori about how the economy impacts her market stall. It was the public servants on Facebook Live, providing unscripted answers about how early childcare will be changed to help support getting more women into work. If you want to get through to people, you need to be real, not polished. Effective communications is now all about authenticity, not about having the best advertisement or best graphics.
  • Storytelling. We made the economy more real, more interesting because we shared the community voice. The government was able to become more human by having a face and story to tell about a complex subject. Humanising a complex subject through storytelling should not be underestimated.

The experience of working with the Cook Islands government reminded me that you don’t need big teams and big budgets or to deliver a flashy product. What you need to consider is the audience and how to get your message to them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *