FIVE MINUTES WITH YVONNE O’HARA
Working for Britain’s largest police force, head of internal comms for the Metropolitan Police, Yvonne O’Hara shares her thoughts on communications strategy and dealing with multiple stakeholder groups
How important is it to be aware of the wider challenges facing public sector communications?
With the real scrutiny on public spend around marketing, the Government Communication Service (GCS) embarked on an ambitious programme to ensure not only that every communicator in government was highly skilled, but that everybody used a consistent approach to planning and evaluation.
That is something that, having spent 10 years in government communications, has stayed with me. What I’ve been doing in the Met is taking that approach, working with the directorate – which is 70 people strong – and working with each function to ensure that we’re not only thinking about the objectives we’re communicating, but how we can demonstrate the impact of that. My responsibility is also to make sure that I can pitch to those communicators looking to make a difference. Demonstrating things like the intellectual depth of the role, its unparalleled access and exposure to problem solving, and working at an organisation that is always under public scrutiny – and rightly so – you never really view communications as internal or external, they’re one in the same.
What are your current communications challenges?
Policing operates in a political environment where we’re accountable to the mayor, as well as to the Home Office, therefore we operate in a political sphere, but we are apolitical. Any of the communication then, be it external or internal, must be credible. Police officers are naturally cynical – they’re trained to be cynical, and always on the lookout – and therefore, spin just doesn’t cut it with them. They can absolutely see through any communication that tries to put a spin on things.
From an internal comms point of view, what I need to make sure is that employees are not only able to participate in the comms, and we do that via things like the intranet forum, but that also it’s informed by them. I often say to my team, ‘See yourself as the conscience of the organisation. Every time you go into a meeting, are asked to solve a problem etc, think about who the audience is, and how it will receive the message, so that those communications are credible.’
How and why did the ‘Spot It to Stop It’ campaign arise?
We had an inspection by the HMIC [Criminal Justice Inspectorates], which looked at how we investigated child safeguarding, and found it to be significantly below par in terms of identifying opportunities where we could’ve safeguarded children more effectively. The consequence of that inspection was for the Met to look at this issue and determined how it would take onboard the findings from the inspection. The campaign came about as a collaborative effort. The communications campaign aims to change behaviours around child safeguarding – the clue is in the name, ‘Spot It to Stop It’ – and what it seeks to do is to present situations that may appear in one way, but if looked at through a different lens, may hold the opportunity for police officers to intervene and safeguard a child.
The campaign itself introduces an evidence-based approach. Before we began the campaign, we conducted a survey with officers to understand attitudes to safeguarding and what kinds of comms they’d like to see. We found that there were a variety of needs that spanned needing to know what the policies were, through to decent training.
What kind of issues are you focused on moving forward?
Part of it is that we never know what they might be. We work in a very reactive environment, even physically where we sit – everyone in the directorate of media and communication sits together on one floor. As an example, during the Westminster attack, we were sitting at our desks and somebody was at the window looking out and watching people running down the Embankment, only to then receive a call to our press bureau informing us of the incident.
That aside, the day job and the things I’m focusing on are really helping the new commissioner, who has been in role for seven months now, to explain her vision for change and get leaders in the organisation more involved. I’ve also recently launched another campaign called ‘Stay Alert,’ which is all about personal safety in direct response to recent terror attacks. It aims to look at many things, including cyber attacks and staying safe online – police officers are a target of terrorist groups – as it’s very important to understand how to stay safe.