This article about DFID was first published in the Scottish newspaper The National (a paper which supports Scottish independence, which I don’t, but they also support freelance journalism which I do).
The London media have said little of interest about Penny Mordaunt, the new Secretary of State for the Department of International Development (DFID): the Times calls her a “joker”, the Mail describes her as a “magician’s assistant” and the Express urges her to “reduce UK’s £13-billion-a-year bill.”
As someone who has worked on DFID projects in Eastern Europe , I would like to offer Ms Mordaunt some PR advice about her new role.
I worked for DFID as a PR consultant and, for years, have been frustrated by this department’s chronic inability to tell their story and promote themselves. It’s the one government department that does great work, is totally transparent but is unknown by the public.
Behind the headline-grabbing challenges that Penny Mordaunt has done in her past, such as competing on Splash, a TV reality swimming show, the media seem to have missed a part of her background that is surely worth an in-depth article: she worked as Head of Foreign Press for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. I’d love to know more about that job.
As a PR heavyweight with useful military experience, Penny Mordaunt is in a good position to project the Department of International Development into the mainstream. Priti Patel, the former secretary of state who was ejected last week, continued the department’s lamentable tradition of burying their heads in the sand while the Express, Mail and Telegraph vilify them about wasting taxpayers money and denounce the one good thing that David Cameron did: commit Britain to spending 0.7% of the state budget on international development.
I’m hoping that Ms Mordaunt has the proverbial balls to stand up to the tabloids, use the facts to refute their shockingly dishonest articles, invite journalists to visit the projects and not take any nonsense from the right wing Tory backbenchers who would happily close down DFID if they could (even though it could be used to show that Britain still has global influence after the Brexit debacle).
What is DFID?
Bearing in mind that the Department for International Development is one of the least known government departments, some background would be useful.
The department dates back to the early sixties when Britain was in the process of closing down its Colonial Office and setting up new structures to maintain connections with those parts of the world it had previously governed. The Overseas Development Administration was set up in 1961 and it quickly gained a reputation in Africa, Latin America and Asia as an efficient supplier of emergency aid. The acronym ODA became a well-known brand in many parts of the world.
One of the key principles of good branding is to value an existing name and not change it without sufficient consultation and investment (the oil companies spend millions every time they adjust their logos). The newly elected Labour government of 1997 ignored this and, perhaps unaware of the value of the ODA name, changed the departments name to DFID. Rather than use this as a “re-branding” opportunity they didn’t invest anything in telling people their name had changed. This chronic inability to promote itself has continued to this day, despite other parts of government becoming increasingly media savvy.
The tabloids go on the offensive
For over 10 years DFID went about its business more or less under the radar, rather like a secret intelligence agency. During the nineties it funded useful projects in Bosnia (including several that I was involved in) and offered a wide range of practical assistance to the countries that were emerging from the Soviet Union. On the ground, it got the reputation of being the least bureaucratic bi-lateral aid agency.
In terms of PR, it all seemed to go wrong under Cameron’s coalition government (2010 to 2015). George Osborne had promised to cut every government department except two – DFID and the NHS. For the tabloids, forever on the hunt for a big victim, they couldn’t attack the NHS as everyone has a personal stake it in – but DFID represented an ideal target: it was relatively unknown and the beneficiaries of its budgets were, shock horror, Johnny Foreigner!
For the last few years the Mail and the Express have carried out a series of outrageous attacks against DFID, accusing it of supporting dictators in Africa, funding terrorists in Palestine and paying for nuclear weapons in India. They do this by quoting the amount we give a particular country, ignoring the details of the project itself, and highlighting the most scandalous story about that nation.
With the EU the tabloids bang the drum about the mythical £350 million a week and with DFID they have an even bigger target to aim for – their £12 billion annual budget, which represents just 0.7% of the national budget. “We believe,” said the Express, “the 0.7% budget commitment can be spent on the struggling NHS and social care services in Britain.”
The irony of these tirades are that they are based on the detailed information that DFID itself makes public about its international operations. In fact, DFID has been praised as the most transparent of all government departments as it’s the only one with all their accounts online.
Penny Mordaunt’s Opportunity of a Lifetime
Ms Mordaunt should be grateful that she wasn’t appointed as the new Minister of Defence, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. The role would have involved lobbying her own government to stop cutting budgets and with very little decent PR collateral.
The DFID job is a gift from PR heaven: it has the most inspiring story that’s never been told. All it needs is someone with the guts to stand up to the tabloids and the nationalist Tory backbenchers. It reminds me of the old American saying “if you need a man for a job – get a woman.”
DFID-funded projects in sub-Sahara Africa and the Middle East are vital for people in those regions to get water, food and livelihoods. They are also one of the few investments going on in those areas that give people some hope, some work and help to prevent the waves of migrants heading towards Western Europe.
At donor meetings around the world, DFID has earned its place at the top table with the UN, EU, Japanese and American government aid agencies. The only other European country with this level of influence is Norway.
But DFID have almost no PR staff and when I was in Nepal earlier this year, trying to visit their projects and write about them, I was met with confusion. Nobody in their Kathmandu office knew how to deal with me.
If Ms Mordaunt adopts an aggressive approach to this she could have immediate impact. She could take on the tabloids in the mainstream media, destroy their arguments with simple facts, order every DFID mission to invite journalists to visit projects – and tell the nationalists in her own party that helping poor people get on their feet is the best thing we can do to protect our own country. She could also be a regular visitor to Scotland as DFID’s main administrative base is in East Kilbride.