How to write for public sector clients (without going crazy)

July 5, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

public sector writingMany people think the government does all their own work. Surprise! They actually hire subcontractors to do most things.

And yes, they need help with copywriting.

This isn’t an area I know much about, but Arvid Westfelt does. So here are his sanity-saving tips for working with public sector clients.

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Writing for the public sector can be lucrative. Public procurement accounts for a whopping 10 percent (or more) of a country’s economy — and some of that money is used to pay copywriters like you and me.

But public sector clients can be hard to work with. In fact, their seemingly odd and irrational behavior can drive you crazy. Here are a few tips for working with them while staying sane.

Be patient. Your writing assignment is often the last stop in a project that has taken your client months, or even years, to complete. They will show little understanding if you demand immediate feedback on your first draft. So be patient and don’t let their super-slow work rate frustrate you.

… But deliver fast. Within public organizations there are always a few people who are anything but patient. They have worked hard to push the project forward, despite slow colleagues. Now they expect you to deliver fast, to protect you from the bureaucracy. This is good news. If you deliver fast you will get paid fast.

Prepare to have your copy trashed. Your client might decide that they must rework your so-called “final version” before going public with it. Don’t take this personally, the reasons are often political and they probably still think your copy was great. Just make it clear to the client that you cannot take responsibility for how their revised copy delivers results.

Don’t fall victim to a committee. You should never accept writing by committee unless you enjoy the torture of handling conflicting comments, regression to the mean, and spiritless copy. Instead, ask the person in charge of the project to filter feedback for you. He or she knows the organization inside and out, whose comments really need to be considered, and how to handle any political conflicts much better than you.

Help your client sell. Your client may be reluctant to admit it, but they are selling something. Perhaps it’s a message to an interest group, hoping to get their support. Or it’s about what an important job they are doing, hoping to get more funding from an elected official.

Your job is to help your client sell. But this can be a delicate matter, so instead of talking about “selling,” talk about “immediate purpose” or “achieving goals.” Then explain why the headline is the most important element of any text, and why they need a clear call-to-action.

That’s it. Now you’re ready to take on any public sector client.

But before you do, please share your comments: What are your experiences with public sector clients, and what are your best tips for handling them?

Arvid Westfelt is a copywriter and public relations consultant who works with government agencies in Sweden without being the least bit crazy.

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Smart Comments

3 Comments on How to write for public sector clients (without going crazy)

  1. Lucy Thorpe on Jul 5th, 2010 9:57 am
  2. This is very timely as I have just had a public sector client request changes AFTER the document was sent out. The client who commissioned me loved my work and authorised it to be sent out, but now her boss says she wants changes. As you say the changes are mainly political and are tiny. Still this is irritating!

  3. Tammi Kibler on Jul 5th, 2010 11:47 am
  4. Great tips. I particularly appreciate the recommendation to have feedback filtered. Some work will never please everyone and it is best if you don’t have to juggle the politics.

  5. Arvid Westfelt on Jul 6th, 2010 4:07 am
  6. Lucy, I totally agree it’s irritating. But I guess it’s even more irritating for the person who commissioned you! A question: has this put pressure on your client relation, or is it handled just between your client and her boss?

    Tammi, thanks! Many agree you shouldn’t write by committee, but it’s really easy to forget to spell it out from the start. I try to be clear about it, and when I do, people understand the logic behind. Really.