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Grenfell and financial challenges show the importance of quality comms

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LGC commentary on how communications are key to helping councils achieve their strategic aims.

LGC’s latest special report, with LGcomms and the Government Communication Service, provides valuable insights from professional communicators, council chief executives and academics on the value of comms in meeting the many challenges facing local authorities.

Southwark LBC chief executive Eleanor Kelly writes that the best local government communicators are “gritty, determined, quick-thinking and always with residents in the front of their mind”, and “essential to the smooth running of effective, compassionate and collaborative councils”.

Ms Kelly would know a great deal about this, as the lead for engagement with Gold Command, the team of chief officers tasked with running the emergency response to the Grenfell fire. Throughout her article, Ms Kelly makes clear that honesty, humility and compassion have been essential in helping to start regaining the trust of the angry and grieving local community. So too was having a senior comms officer present to work alongside emergency response staff, as a strategic adviser, in Southwark’s response to the London Bridge terror attack.

Northamptonshire CC head of communications and marketing Simon Deacon adds in his section of the report that comms are essential, not only in an emergency but all of the time, in order to maintain residents’ trust. Mr Deacon writes that, especially in an era of “acute financial pressure”, ensuring councils communicate with residents about service changes and shrinking resources in the right way is vital.

Again, this is something Northamptonshire knows plenty about given the local authority is gearing up to asking the government for permission to overspend its annual budget as long as it achieves balances within five years. “In Northamptonshire,” Mr Deacon writes, “when we talk about how inequitable the current government funding mechanism is we don’t say, ‘our county council is one of the lowest funded of all councils’ but rather ‘Northamptonshire is one of the lowest funded counties’.”

Comms isn’t always about bad news, however. Comms2point0 co-founder Dan Slee writes about the ways comms teams can help councils to deliver their goals. Mr Slee gave the example of Staffordshire CC’s work on recruiting foster carers. The comms team and social care staff identified the people they would like to recruit as “ex-police and prison service staff who were also men in their 40s” because this group “had the skills to look after problem teenagers who were having to be sent to expensive private sector placements”.

The two teams also worked on the best way to communicate with the men in this group, such as a face-to-face conversation, a letter, or an email. “The council saved £1m by recruiting foster carers rather than sending [the children] to private sector companies,” Mr Slee writes. “That’s down to the service area and the comms team sitting down and talking.”

Recruiting more foster carers is perhaps a simple example of what good comms can achieve but Paul Willis, professor of corporate communication at the University of Huddersfield, writes that comms can help councils tackle the “wicked problems” that so often plague councils. Professor Willis says wicked problems are those that need to be solved by changing the “mindset or behaviour” of the “people with a stake in the issue”, and those about which stakeholders often have “significant disagreement”. The role of council communicators in this, therefore, is to “foster rather than direct discussion and encourage stakeholders to find and implement their own answers through collaboration”.

Used wisely, quality communications are key to helping councils achieve their strategic aims. 

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