Writing for the public sector? Follow these six tips from sector experts

The public sector has its own priorities, challenges, motivations and language. Generic B2B content won't work for this extraordinary audience, so we gathered six tips from experts in the sector.

public sector figures

“The public sector.” Those three words should be a delight to see at the top of a brief or content plan. It’s a sector that delivers meaningful improvements to real people’s lives every day. It offers the kind of human stories every content marketer dreams of sharing.

But the reality is very different. All too often, content targeting the public sector falls short, failing to home in on what really keeps its decision-makers awake at night.

I wanted to find out why, and how to make public sector content that really sings. So, along with Radix Creative Director David McGuire, I asked public sector employees – and the gurus that market to them – how to get it right.

We ran a whole podcast on the topic. But I still felt there was more concrete advice to share, and that’s where this blog comes in. I’ll share six tips based on interviews with industry experts and my own experience writing for this extraordinary audience.

1. Make sure you really understand your audience

You can’t create something that resonates with your reader unless you know who they are. That’s true for any content. But for the public sector, this kind of specific audience knowledge is even more important.

In fact, it’s really more than one audience. The public sector is vast and varied, so if you don’t know whether you’re talking to a local council or a central government department, you’ll have no way of speaking to the unique challenges each type of institution faces. Instead, it’s important to map those challenges out, so you can tailor the right message to the right person.

“It can be tempting to want to create noise in the market, but I’d never recommend taking a scattergun approach,” says Shona Wright, Public Sector Marketing Lead at Microsoft.

“Taking time to create a messaging framework (and training your people on it) is often an overlooked step, but I think it’s essential for anchoring your content and having a cohesive impact on your public sector audience.”

2. Use the language of the sector, but don’t over-use jargon

Specific info on who you’re targeting helps you get the specificity your content needs. But you still have a tough task ahead of you: making sure your content is written in a language that really speaks to your public sector reader, and focuses on the topics close to their heart.

Most B2B brands have a whole roster of tried-and-tested terms and topics they can lean on when speaking to the private sector. However, many of these translate poorly to public sector readers, or at least need some finessing before they’re fit for purpose. For example, some might detest the word “customers”.

While it’s important to speak your audience’s language, Lynn File, Founder and Managing Director Brand Innovation reminds us it’s essential to keep your content human: “The public sector is full of jargon and acronyms. These should be avoided at all costs. If you start using public sector jargon, all the power and emotion drains out of your content immediately.”

3. Get to the purpose behind your audience

But it’s not just language that’s different in the public sector; there’s also a different motivation to their work.

Lynn continues: “By definition, the public sector is there to serve their public and, in my experience, most of the people who work in the public sector are very committed to delivering that. You can latch into what they see as their overall purpose and reflect that back at them.

“So, for example, the NHS at heart is all about delivering great patient care. To be effective, marketing communications have to promise to contribute to that goal. When marketing to them, you should speak about the big picture and the benefits their role ultimately delivers.”

4. Learn from commercial enterprises

While it’s crucial you get the tone and language right when speaking to the public sector, you shouldn’t discard your knowledge of the private sector completely.

Shona says: “Local authorities could learn a lot from disruptive retailers in delivering great customer experiences. As public sector marketers, we need to have the courage to look across industries and help our public sector audiences open their eyes to what they can learn from commercial businesses.”

The way you present this information is crucial. A message that’s overly commercial can turn a public sector reader off – but show them how a private sector solution can be adapted to help them achieve their own public-facing goals, and they might well listen.

5. Balance positive and negative messages

While much of the public sector is about building a better society, some jobs are focused on avoiding a negative outcome rather than pursuing a positive one. But how much can you (and should you) dwell on the risks in your content?

“Risk is an inherent concern in the public sector, and I don’t see that dramatically changing,” says Shona.

“But I do believe we have a viewpoint on the changing landscape of risk. Moving the conversation, from ‘on-prem is safer than cloud’ to understanding the risk of not transforming, is key. Also, I think the role of the public sector CIO has changed. They need to be aware of financial, commercial and reputational risk more now than ever before.”

Where possible, then, discuss the wider elements of risk rather than focusing on one specific area. Beyond this, it’s also important to see where you can flip negative messages around to something more aspirational – showing the reader you understand the importance of their job.

“I think marketers should get fired up and share the enthusiasm that the best public sector workers have for their role,” Lynn suggests.

“Use upbeat exciting language; be positive; be optimistic. Emotion beats reason when it comes to content. Believe in the better future society your audience wants to deliver and show how the product or service you are marketing will help them do that.”

6. Think carefully about the decision-making unit

One anonymous source from the UK civil service explained how the complex decision-making process in some parts of the public sector can be a barrier to common marketing approaches.

They said: “Procurement is a lengthy process, so standard marketing techniques are unlikely to get most companies anywhere. There’s also very little that I can actually act on because the final decision-making power does not sit with me. And I’m someone who was used to having sign-off in private sector roles. So, for the civil service at least, I would suggest that the rulebook doesn’t apply.”

We spoke with another anonymous source with experience working in parliament, and they offered concrete advice for handling the complex tech sign-off process: “In general, there’s very little understanding of what IT solutions are out there. And, unlike the private sector, few have the spare time or dedicated roles required to research the technologies available. If you can show what the options are quickly, and why they should care, and make it easy for them to share this info with decision-makers, your content will go down much better.”

Different audiences, different advice, similar themes

Not all this advice above will apply to every public sector audience. Much depends on what type of organisation you’re targeting – and what their mission is.

However, there are a few constants that can help all public sector content hit a little closer to home:

  • Don’t use jargon as a substitute for communication – both public and private sector buzzwords won’t get you very far
  • Believe in your audience’s mission – and avoid trying to frighten the reader with risks; chances are they handle them every day
  • Be clear and helpful – by openly educating the reader about the options available, and the benefits of each
  • Use examples from other industries – but be very clear about how it applies to public sector objectives

Remember, many public sector audiences face an uphill battle every day, to justify their budgets, their objectives, often their own jobs – even though they’re only working on behalf of the public, to make society better. As private sector marketers and writers, you and I can’t claim to know what that’s like. But we can write content in a way that makes the job a little easier, and shows the reader we’re on their side.

If you want to see some of these tips in practice, Radix Creative Director David McGuire wrote up his approach when working with CACI on marketing to public sector child services leaders.


More posts you might like…

7 ways to write B2B marketing content that has real value

How can you ensure your marketing content is delivering value for both your business and your audience?

Podcast 87: B2B content for the public sector

Creating effective content for the public sector is a delicate balance between logic and emotion. We talk to leading marketers and find out how it’s done.

Make your writing more effective

Get copywriting tips and advice — direct to your inbox every month: