OmniGov's Paul Knight on the Covid-19 comms front line and trips to Whitehall

The complexity, collaboration, speed and scrutiny of comms have been intense during crisis.

Knight: 'Government communications have never been busier'
Knight: 'Government communications have never been busier'

Paul Knight is chief executive of OmniGov, the specialist unit in Manning Gottlieb OMD that has looked after the UK government’s media buying since 2018.

He explains the challenges of managing the media buying part of the government’s comms during the coronavirus crisis in the glare of public scrutiny and how it is leading to new and better ways of working as part of Campaign's "Leadership in lockdown" series. 

Where are you spending quarantine and how do you run your day?

I live with my wife and three children in West Sussex and, on the advice of many people who have previously worked from home, we have tried to maintain some sort of routine throughout this period.

The mornings usually consist of printing out homework, setting up computers and ensuring everyone has what they need for the day ahead. One of the benefits of lockdown has meant we have spent lunchtimes and dinners together as family – as well as the occasional Joe Wicks session in the mornings.

My working week includes trips to the Cabinet Office in Whitehall, which has made this period harder to manage, but these visits are vital to the success of the government’s plans.

What were the biggest adjustments that you had to make in the first few weeks in terms of your work, your team and your clients/external partners?

Government communications have never been busier and working remotely brings additional challenges which don’t just include dodgy Wi-Fi. 

Assembling additional teams at pace has been a necessary requirement, reflecting the different elements, scale and breadth of the campaigns we have been communicating. Our people have been fantastic throughout and stepped up to a challenge none of us could have expected. This includes the wider agency and those we have drafted in for support.

The days spent with other agencies at Cabinet Office have also been incredibly productive. Quick conversations and socially distanced meetings have meant we can get things agreed and implemented at pace, when it’s never been more important. 

The speed at which we are moving has highlighted that meetings we would normally have in an office can easily be cut by up to 50% and still be as productive. This has been a positive and, when we slowly start returning to normal, this is something that could, and should, continue.

What has been the hardest part and what has been the most uplifting part of lockdown?

If I were to summarise the past two months, I would say complexity and scrutiny has been the hardest part, whilst collaboration has been the most uplifting.

Complexity to a level I have never seen before – multiple messages and policy changes on a daily basis, the turnaround times we have worked to and the different ways of working we have had to adopt with different government stakeholders and departments. Also, the scrutiny that comes with government communications is even more in the spotlight and the outcomes of these campaigns really do make a difference, so effectiveness has to be our driving factor.

Collaboration has highlighted the real strength within our industry. Not only across our OmniGov team in MG OMD, but also working with multiple media partners. It has been difficult at times as we haven’t been allowed to discuss policy details, but the generosity and goodwill of the industry in supporting key communications (particularly for the NHS) has been inspiring.

An inspirational example of collaboration in this time was the coming together of the UK publishing industry across hundreds of titles. This "virtual" agency, across media, PR, creative, partnerships and insight, has been regularly brought together within Cabinet Office to help navigate the pace and agility of the activity over the past two months.

What are you working on?

A large part of my time has been taken up on the Covid-19 campaign. The past weeks have been a challenge and many a weekend has been taken up with urgent calls or policy updates. Every day has presented different challenges, such as:

  • Ensuring multiple messages are landed at the right time, such as self-isolation, symptoms or handwashing
  • Replanning on a weekly basis to accommodate different policies, such as the devolved nations that have extended their stay-at-home guidelines
  • Focusing on how we are using insight to inform our approach, such as daily polling, compliant and vulnerable audience data and campaign econometrics
  • Ensuring effectiveness data is reviewed, distilled and regularly fed back into the team for planning and buying optimisation

Alongside this, we have many government departments that are now making plans for the next few months, so the challenge has been to ensure we have the right level of resource across the team to be able to manage workloads and maintain the level of service we had been delivering before lockdown. All areas of our business have been fantastic in stepping up to the challenges and have highlighted the real strengths of our agency.

How do you find inspiration?

Being at the centre of such a challenging situation for our country, it has struck me how everyone in the UK has pulled together as we try to get back to some sort of normal. There are inspirational stories across every part of our society, such as Colonel Tom, keeping families healthy with the help of Joe Wicks or the Thursday night clap for carers to show our huge admiration for the front-line workers. 

Inspiration has also come from the great work the team are doing at speed. It’s so inspiring to work with such talented individuals.

Has the experience taught you something that you’ll change when you get back to working from an office?

We have proved how connected we can be, even if we aren’t together. As much as I miss the face-to-face interactions, the technology has been a big success. Used in the right way, it can be a benefit to our working life.

Virtual company meetings and conferences have increased inclusivity and more regular check-ins with teams has been a real positive. These will be crucial as we slowly ease back into office working. The past two months have shown me how everyone adapts in different ways. 

What change do you expect to see in the industry when this is over? 

My biggest challenge to the industry is what our new normal looks like when this is over. I think our working patterns could change; we have proved that remote working, in the right measures, can be a success. We have proved how resilient we are.

Also, the speed at which we have implemented highly effective campaigns also demonstrates to me the true potential our industry has if we work even closer together – across all sectors.

As I write this, we are moving into our new "Stay alert" phase and slowly businesses are starting to reopen their doors. We must pay attention to the rate of infection, but if everyone continues to follow the guidance, I am confident we will come back even stronger.