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The growing role of external affairs in government communication

Blog posted by: Suzanne Edmond, Director of Communications, Department for Transport, 11 August 2021.

One of the newest disciplines, External Affairs has been playing a critical role in government communication since it was launched in 2016. Building strong and trusted relationships with a wide range of stakeholders ensures we can communicate effectively with the public. Our work ranges from engaging with hard-to-reach groups to providing high quality engagement in a crisis.

The latter is certainly something that all of us have had much experience of over the last 18 months. Operational responses, especially long standing ones (like a global pandemic!) rather than short term ‘crises’ can really test us as individuals and teams. However, it’s often in these most challenging times that we’re at our most creative. Difficult circumstances force us to think and do things differently, which can often mean us achieving things we never thought that we could.

This has been seen repeatedly across the external affairs profession over the past 18 months. I can certainly think of numerous examples within my own department, most notably dealing with disruption at Kent in the days running up to Christmas 2020.

Securing the right partnerships upfront was pivotal. Following the unexpected and short notice to close the UK-French border, our primary objective was to discourage hauliers, commercial and private drivers from travelling to Kent. To do that effectively, we needed to use every channel available to advise hard to reach audiences, and we couldn’t do it alone.

There are many examples across government of how External Affairs teams have adapted and thrived in difficult circumstances and contributed to helping the UK through the pandemic.

These include holding virtual meetings, conferences and Ministerial roundtables to share priorities with key audiences; working with influential individuals and organisations to support the clinically vulnerable throughout the pandemic; and engaging closely with businesses and other industries to co-write guidance designed to help us all return to work safely.

I’m hugely encouraged that within just five years External Affairs has become a key part of government communications across Whitehall and, increasingly, in arms-length bodies.

I know that these same teams will be at the forefront of delivering the government’s Build Back priorities as we recover from COVID-19, and continue to strengthen our relationships with the widest possible range of stakeholders. The last 18 months haven’t been the easiest, but it’s brought out the best in these brilliant professionals and I look forward to seeing what they achieve in the future!

The GCS Academy includes a variety of resources on External Affairs. For insight into the discipline, watch our on-demand webinar Introduction to External Affairs. Also check out our External Affairs guidance, which has been produced to enable government communicators to operate effectively within their roles.


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