Commentary on this week’s LGcomms Academy.
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One hundred years on from the Bolsheviks seizing the Winter Palace we are in the midst of another revolution; one that could have similarly profound repercussions.
The possibilities opened up by rapid digitisation were a leading theme of the LGcommunications Academy in Leeds this week, representing the biggest annual gathering of senior comms officers from within local government and its public sector partner bodies.
While the revolutionary fervour may not have been as immediately apparent as it was in 1917 Petrograd, it was nevertheless obvious that dramatic change is afoot. Comms officers have certainly moved on from being merely the people who send press releases to the local rag and from their Blair era incarnation as local spin-doctors but this remains a profession in transition.
Councils, reeling from austerity, are seeking to get the right messages out to residents about how they can protect themselves from harm and benefit from opportunity, and to broader society (and investors) about the economic potential of their local area. Across the whole public sector people have woken up to the old constraints and deadlines no longer applying, and the new dangers that abound.
The government’s communication chief gave the impression of having made a series of appeals to ministers and civil servants to ensure state campaigns were backed by the required resources to flourish in the digital era.
“If you want to benefit from the full potential of modern digital communications to its full effect you must give us the tools,” Alex Aiken, the executive director of government communications, said he had been arguing.
Pointing out that he was “responsible for nine billion impressions a year” on government websites, Mr Aiken reminded delegates that the state possessed “a huge amount of data”. “Using that data responsibly to hone the effectiveness of your campaigns is part of that challenge,” he said.
But data use is not government comms officers’ first big challenge. The LGcomms event took place not just in the centenary of the Bolsheviks’ triumph but in the year of the 100th anniversary of government communications in the UK. The Ministry of Information was initially set up to produce World War One propaganda but its role has moved on as both Britain’s challenges and technologies have evolved.
Mr Aiken said it had previously been argued: “We’ve got perfectly good posters. Why do we need radios and cinema?”
The current shift will be even more profound, as was argued by Sanjay Nazerali, the global strategy officer of the digital media firm Carat. He argued that the previous “see-saw” in which trust in business had an inverse relationship to trust in government had been “smashed” by the digital revolution.
“Trust in business and government is falling at the same time. People now trust in ‘people like me’,” the former BBC News executive said.
Although people read news online, it was disseminated by Facebook or Twitter and people usually followed those with the same interests and prejudices as themselves. They had no way of “contextualising” the source of news and ‘clickbait’ or fake news was increasingly lucrative.
So how should council communicators respond to an era in which the truth seems less integral, in which lies or half-truths can spread like wildfire?
“Build social strength now,” was Mr Nazerali’s advice. He cited Volkswagen’s counterintuitive sales increase after the emissions scandal as an example of how “strong brands recover fast” (although in the German carmaker’s case, there was nothing fake about that news). Uber or Sports Direct had put less effort into building trust previously and might face more long-lasting repercussions from their difficulties.
Read LGC’s preview of the LGcomms Academy here
Mr Nazerali said council communicators should capitalise on positive sentiment about their organisations’ work. “When people say ‘thank you for doing x, y and z’, use their words – find ways to amplify the voices of people who say good things about you.”
He also urged transparency, citing how the BBC’s decision to reveal which staff earned £100,000 or more had killed the issue in the wider media, and – in a suggestion that should have implications for those in the highest rungs of the local government ladder – suggested that comms teams sought to “build the profile of an expert”. Mr Nazerali pointed out there were celebrity historians, scientists and mathematicians. LGC might add, why not celebrity council chief execs?
Amid all of the possibilities opened up by the digital age, another lesson shone through: the importance of using the language of real people. Two speakers suggested the same solution to sense-checking what you were producing did make sense.
Tony Blair’s director of political operations John McTernan put at number seven in his list of essential advice “talk to your mum”.
And local government’s very own Jo Miller, president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, revealed that she was concerned advice produced for tower block tenants, who were worried in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, was unreadable. She had rewritten it herself in consultation with her mother.
And while one might ask whether mothers should be the ‘one to watch’ in every comms team, a separate question was posed by LGcomms chairman Simon Jones. “Why aren’t more comms folk going on to become chief execs?” was his valid query.
If David Cameron rose to prime minister having only held a single role outside politics as director of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications, why shouldn’t a director of communications become a council chief to usher services into the digital age?