The Rise of the Communications Director


Public Sector Digest | Fall 2011

The increasing influence of social media and a 24-hour news cycle make today one of the most exciting and challenging times to be a communications director in the public sector. The speed with which stories can now cross the world require the communications function to be ‘always on’. Social media brings its own set of unique challenges as a major influencer of opinion that is evolving very quickly and now competing with journalists and governments as a source of information. The challenge for the public sector is to give the communications function the strategic position it requires to manage the media rather than be led by it, and hire the appropriate talent. This will be a departure for many public sector organisations, many of which have tended to view communications as a tactical function, and will require an overhaul of their approach to communications, and recruitment and retention.

“Communications professionals come from a range of academic backgrounds and it is not necessarily an advantage to have studied communications as a discipline to be successful in the field.”


The most successful communications directors in the public sector have often had experience of operating at a senior level in both the private and the public sectors, and are familiar with working across a range of cultures and languages. They bring business acumen, an entrepreneurial and creative flair, and are used to collaborating with senior executives throughout the organisation and building programmes that support its strategic goals. They are fully integrated with the leadership team, have the ability to debate and defend their point of view at the top table, and, ideally, have the ear of and ability to influence the chief executive officer. The best communications directors have a strong strategic understanding of all of the key elements of the role, including marketing, public relations, CSR, and event management, and how each part can be used to position the CEO’s and the organisation’s brand. Traditionally, however, many communications people in the public sector have had a narrow view of their role, seeing it simply as a reactive press office, based on maintaining contacts with the media. Communications professionals come from a range of academic backgrounds and it is not necessarily an advantage to have studied communications as a discipline to be successful in the field. However, it is essential to have a solid understanding of the political and social environment and the ability to analyse global and macro trends.


The cultures of the private and public sectors differ dramatically, and it is difficult to predict the extent to which public sector culture will evolve. The measurement of results and impact is different, budgets in the public sector tend to be more modest, and private sector communication is often more dynamic. The perceived lack of dynamism in the public sector may be due to inherent bureaucracy, but there is much that can be learned from private companies. A key area is how to attract talent; in particular, taking a more open minded approach to considering people who come from outside the sector. Currently, many highly capable communications directors are excluded simply because they do not have governmental experience. The situation is also prevalent in continental Europe. It is important for public sector organizations to hire people without previous governmental experience to bring in a fresh perspective. This approach is vital for intra-industry knowledge transfer.

If a candidate from the private sector has successfully navigated challenges that a public sector organisation is currently facing, he or she should be given due consideration and not excluded from the pool of candidates. Once an organisation has hired from the private sector, it tends to do it again. Another good example of a more open approach to public sector employment is the UK government under Prime Minister Tony Blair; on his watch, the sector brought in many senior talents from private companies, such as McKinsey & Company or other consultancies.

Equally important to recruitment efforts is the view that the public has of government employees. What is the standing in society of someone working in the public sector? If the culture is one in which it is an honour to serve the public, it is easier to attract interesting talent. In Germany, for example, working in the public sector is not at all well-regarded. In France, however, the system is focused on ensuring many of the best in the country work for the state. The country has an elitist culture, especially at the educational and academic level. The brightest brains go to institutions such as École Nationale d’Administration, which are made for teaching public administration and educating students to serve the country as leaders.

However, academic elitism does not necessarily equate to an innovative culture. In fact, it may be too exclusive. In France, it’s certainly very challenging to get into the public sector without government experience or qualifications from particular institutions. Many decision makers in the public sector across Europe need professional advice about choosing their senior team and the role that executive search has to play. Search providers need to explain the benefits of considering talent from outside the sector and ensure that those candidates appreciate that the recruitment process tends to be much slower in the public sector for a range of reasons, including the need for very high levels of transparency.

Whilst remuneration tends to be lower in the public sector, many senior private sector executives are attracted by the opportunity of contributing to increasing the efficiency of public services and the benefits they provide to society. Equally, the ‘non-profit’ sector, including public private partnerships, non-government organisations, and global development organisations, is becoming more and more interesting to many leaders in the private sector: the mission- driven nature of these organisations is attractive for senior leaders who want to contribute in a meaningful way to society.

With budgets under major pressure, taking a role in the public sector is not for the feint hearted. However, the opportunity to deliver value has never been greater. For the communications director in the ascendant, there is the opportunity to carve out a role of critical strategic importance. The call to action for the leadership of many public sector and non-profit organisations and their human resources functions is to take a more critical approach to the contribution that the communications function can make and to review their talent acquisition programme.

The Speech: Inspiring And Persuading An Audience

One of the critical roles of the communications director is speech writing for the leadership group. Speeches must communicate a clear message, tell a story, and be honest and told from the heart so that people can relate to them. Honesty is vital. If you have bad news to tell, tell it. Writing the perfect business speech means being fully attuned to the organisation, its values and risks, and the perceptions of its audiences, and being prepared to voice strong opinion both in writing and to the speech giver who might question some of the content.

The best speeches convey a story, begin with a very memorable point, preferably not a quotation, because that is rather unoriginal, and become a talking point. The goal should be to take the audience to another place. On one occasion, when a previous prime minister of France had to give a speech in front of a Franco-German audience, I convinced him to give a large part of it in German even though he was not fluent in the language and I had to teach him many of its nuances. He had rarely made speeches in German, so it was a huge surprise to his audience when he started talking. His approach engaged the audience straightaway and made it a highly impactful unforgettable speech.

CHRISTOPH GOTTSCHALK is a consultant at Russell Reynolds Associates. Based in Hamburg, he recruits senior executives within the public sector and for public policy organizations. Previously, Christoph was the German Adviser to the French Prime Minister. Christoph received his M.Sc. in European Public Policy from the University of London.

Sign up for our newsletter

Get the newsletter that prepares you for what's next with valuable insights across industries and geographies.
The Rise of the Communications Director