• Opinion
  • June 14, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 0

What Abba can teach us about policy communication

Opinion: How to make your message stand the test of time

This article was written by Philip Mudge, Defence first secretary in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Brussels, and former manager of the Communications and Press Office in the Irish Department of Defence. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


“Content is King” or so Bill Gates told us that back in 1996. We all listened and followed his advice.

And of course he was right; if what we want is SEO, loads of “clicks” and “likes” and maybe a few reads. But that isn’t what we want! Effective communication is transferring the message that you want to give to the audience for which it is intended. If you focus on content, you risk not saying what you want, to the people who you want to hear it.

At this point, a warning. If you work full time in communications you may think this article is too simple, obvious, a no-brainer; but study how other people communicate. If it’s that simple, why are so many people getting it wrong?  

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If communications is not your main role, don’t make the mistake of thinking this article is not for you. If you have the luxury of working with communications experts, then use this as a checklist to make sure your colleagues are delivering what you want.  If you don’t have expert back-up, then this will help you communicate like, or better than, a pro.

Pop superstars ABBA were (and are) excellent communicators. Even if you weren’t a fan when Waterloo won Eurovision in 1974, you can probably sing or hum a dozen of the songs from their back catalogue and most of you have probably seen one or two of the Mama Mia movies. That’s great communication: a message that stands the test of time for almost 50 years.

Communication the ABBA way

So, what do ABBA have to teach us about public sector communication?

The answer is simple: Long before thinking about creating any content, you have to do the more important things first. Leave content to last, until you’ve got everything else sorted, fixed and in the bag. The clue is in the name of the movie “Mama Mia”. Consider Message, Audience, Media, Activity before even thinking about any Material Including Actual Content. Communication the ABBA way: MAMA MIA communication.

First, your Message. Know exactly what are you trying to say. What ideas do you want to get across? That message needs to be clear. While it needs to speak to those you know personally, and those interested in the topic, you need to remember those who have been coerced or expected to read it.

And let’s not forget those who simply found it at the top of their google search because their SEO worked and those who found it while looking for videos of cats playing the piano. When you finally get to creating content, before publishing; forget proofreading for typos, just check that the message that you want to get across is clear and unambiguous throughout the content you’ve created.

Knowing the audience

What you create will depend on your Audience. Different demographics, culture, gender, location, and attention span will all impact on what you write and how you write it. For example, if you are writing for academics, your content will need to be bound by the rules of academic writing, otherwise none of your audience will even take a second glance.

The Medium you intend to use will control how your content is communicated. If your medium is spoken word, visual or even interpretive dance of course you’ll create differently. However, even within written communication, how you communicate will be entirely dependent on your chosen medium.

We’ve all seen Facebook posts imported into Twitter that don’t make their point within 280 characters, with the result that the reader doesn’t even know what you are talking about, or the links in social media posts to websites where the font size is too small to read on your phone. Don’t do this.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The medium through which you are communicating will have its own distinct regulations, house styles, conventions. The profile of people interacting through the media you intend to use is also important. Don’t use a medium where your chances of engaging with your target audience are reduced or simply non-existent.

Mama trumps Mia

When you have the three most important considerations sorted, you are nearly (but not quite) ready to start creating content. But before you do, stop! What Activity are you going to talk, write (or interpretative dance) about? What story are you going to tell? Is it directly related to your message and importantly will it connect with your audience? Is it appropriate for the medium you have chosen?

Finally, you are ready to start creating Material Including Actual content. Fill it with buzzwords and click-bait if you like, do whatever you want, but when you do, reference back throughout your creative process to the four key considerations. Your MAMA trumps your MIA every time.

If you do this then there is at least a chance that you will say what you want to, to the people who you wish to hear it, using a medium where they are likely to engage with it, by telling the story that you want to tell. Alternatively, just play ABBA really loud through speakers placed on the street and maybe your intended audience will come in for a chat.

Practice what you preach

I try to practice what I preach. Before I started writing, my message was clear: if you communicate like everyone else does, you’re doing it wrong.

I checked with Apolitical to make sure I knew my audience: you guys; policy makers and public servants in over 170 countries across the world, communications professionals and those who aren’t trained or experienced but are expected to do it anyway. The medium for communication is written word, published on the Apolitical website. The activities I’m talking about are your writing and the music of ABBA. All of these were in the bag long before I started creating any material including my content.

I welcome feedback, comment or criticism of this article or any other of my opinions. You can find me on LinkedIn, but I have an unusual name, so you’ll probably find me elsewhere if you look hard enough. (That’s the wonderful thing about Tiggers!) — Philip Mudge

(Photo credit: Unsplash)

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