Saturday 21 September 2019

'I'm not Leo's spin master but my unit is starting a revolution in government'

Marketing guru at the head of the controversial SCU plans a radical change in how the public gets the message, writes Kevin Doyle

RECORD: John Concannon is the man behind a string of high-profile marketing campaigns such as The Gathering and Ireland 2016. Photo: David Conachy
RECORD: John Concannon is the man behind a string of high-profile marketing campaigns such as The Gathering and Ireland 2016. Photo: David Conachy
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

John Concannon isn't a household name - but in political circles his reputation precedes him. Suave, confident, affable and successful. Even those who condemn his new project admit his CV is impressive.

He's the type of guy who, over the course of an hour, excitedly employs words like "hope", "possibility", "new era", "pride" and "inspirational".

The marketing guru was behind the Wild Atlantic Way, The Gathering, Ireland 2016 and Creative Ireland - but in recent weeks he has been branded as Leo Varadkar's 'spin master'.

Concannon is in the political firing line since taking up the role as head of the Government's new Strategic Communications Unit (SCU).

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has already promised to disband the "propaganda unit" if he becomes Taoiseach.

So after having his name bandied around the Dail chamber, the marketing guru agrees to his only sit-down interview to press his case.

"This isn't evolution, this is revolution. You're going to see a radical change project at the very centre of how our government works. This is really hard stuff to do," he says. "I'm very confident the work we're going to do will be world class. We're going to save enormous money for the taxpayer."

That's a claim the Taoiseach boldly made before it turned out that, in fact, the unit will cost €5m next year.

Leo Varadkar has struggled to explain how John Concannon was parachuted from his job in Culture Ireland to the Department of the Taoiseach.

So let's hear the Galway man's version: According to John Concannon, it started with a "philosophical conversation" around the time Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach.

"He said 'I'm chatting to you because you've been involved in some of the big things that have connected with people like the Centenary, the Gathering and Creative Ireland'," he explains.

"I wasn't expecting anything. We were chatting and it was something along the lines of 'I want to significantly improve how government, not Fine Gael, communicates. We talked about that and I said 'so what you're talking about is radical change', because government does things in a certain way… and that moved very quickly into me talking to Martin Fraser (the Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach)."

After talks with Martin Fraser, he agreed to take up the role while retaining his assistant secretary grade in the civil service, which commands a salary of between €122,313 and €139,728. Asked if he considers himself a 'PR man', he replies: "I consider myself more of a business strategist".

"If the perception is that my job or my team's job is to focus on the political machine and the Taoiseach and try spin them in some way, they will see by the work we're going to do that that's not what we're about. When you actually unpick the work we've done, so far you'll see that."

So if he's not the 'spin master', what has he been doing apart from videos on Twitter?

"The first step was to write out to all the government departments to see what they are doing. What we established pretty quickly was that there's about €170m spent on communications. There are hundreds of campaigns, some very good, some not so good. And there are hundreds of people involved. It was huge eye-opener to everybody because it had never been looked at in a consolidated way before," he says.

Next came a review of international best practice which involved trips to London and The Hague. "In the other countries they said to us: 'Do not underestimate the resistance you face. You will be resisted every step of the way'."

Following those fact-finding missions, Concannon, a father of three, says he was clear the Government has too many identities and a lack of joined-up thinking. For a start, the SCU identified close to 450 websites under the government's remit.

"Each one of those would have costs associated with design, hosting and content management. There's huge complexity there and massive cost," he says.

By contrast, the UK and US governments have a single web portal. On the US site, one of the top search queries is 'Find unclaimed money the Government owes me'.

In the New Year, the SCU plans to launch Ireland's own 'catch-all' website.

Similarly, the identities of the 15 government departments are to be streamlined under one logo with the tagline 'Government of Ireland'.

And then there will be a series of public awareness campaigns on topics including Brexit, the 10-year Capital Plan, the Children's Hospital and the Rugby World Cup.

"We'll do a lot less campaigns but do them a lot better," Mr Concannon says. "In terms of the €5m, it will essentially fund public awareness programmes as decided firstly by the secretaries general and approved by the Cabinet."

He points to a recent 'Back To School' effort which his office oversaw. In the past, four departments would have put together their own campaigns - but the SCU brought them together. "That's only a small thing but it makes sense instead of four campaigns."

The unit was also behind a recent video launched to coincide with Ireland's bid for the Rugby World Cup in 2023. More than 1.3 million people have viewed it but its feelgood factor hardly justifies €5m?

"The unique thing about our bid is that it's guaranteed by the parliament. So it's backed by the people financially, it's not some oligarch backing it," Concannon says.

"We're in a situation where resources are limited and you have to make choices. So we've made a choice to back the Rugby World Cup for good reason but we need to explain that."

Concannon says the idea of the video was to ensure people understood "it's the GAA, soccer and rugby coming together, it's North and South, it involves an act of parliament".

He refuses to take the blame for a series of videos showing Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe visiting the printers (on the day before the Budget to thank them for their work and see the cover of the book), walking along corridors and arriving at RTE that were posted online. The clips were widely panned on social media and in the Dail.

"That was his own team. I think the rationale there was the human interest, saying this is a team of people working awful hard," he argues.

He struggles when asked how the unit will communicate bad news but says they won't shy away from it. "We need to have that. The better understanding people have of where the funds are going, the more they understand that there are choices to be made."

He can't say how big the unit will become over time. It has already subsumed the staff who work on the Government's website but the Government press office will remain separate.

"We haven't actually said x number of roles. It's going to be a secondment across the public service. I'm not being evasive to say I don't know the number," he says.

He admits some public servants could be put off applying for a place in the unit by statements made in the Dail, including Opposition accusations that it's "a very dangerous development".

"I understand why the political system is doing what it's doing. I'm not naive enough to think this is happening in a vacuum. I've been in this situation where things haven't been rosy in the garden. For example, when we set up The Gathering, Gabriel Byrne was out saying it was a shakedown and wouldn't work.

"When we started work on the Centenary, there were very negative, extremely caustic comments for a long time."

Regarding his own politics, John Concannon says that he has never had any party affiliation. Neither does he have a bad word to say about any of the TDs who have vigorously questioned the purpose of the SCU.

Momentarily, though, he allows himself to stray into political conversation, saying the Taoiseach's ambition for Ireland is "remarkable" and he has been "blown away" by his clarity. "There's a serious wow factor in terms of his energy but that's not my job. Those are my personal opinions."

Asked what he makes of Micheal Martin, he praises the Fianna Fail leader for not having politicised the Centenary commemorations. "I'm sure there could have been opportunities to do that," he says. "Our goal isn't to convince Micheal Martin and Brendan Howlin. You've got to see that in the context of the parliamentary situation."

But he says in 12 months' time, he hopes they look at the SCU in a different light.

"I'd like to say to all the elected members of Dail Eireann and our senators that this is the decision the Government took a year ago, to establish a centrally co-ordinated team to significantly improve communications with our citizens and thereby save money, and have we done that?

"At this moment in time, we haven't an awful lot of miles on the clock."

Time will tell.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section