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The value of investing in communications

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Commentary on the messages relevant to all top officers from last week’s LGcommunications academy

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With councils having haemorrhaged staff in recent years it is easy to understand how communications teams could be perceived to be an expensive luxury.

LGC has spoken with many comms leaders in the sector in recent times who have lamented how they are overseeing something like the third restructuring of their team in as many years.

But these reductions in staff should not be interpreted as some kind of slur on the value of communications staff. Indeed, the vast majority of leaders and chief executives with whom LGC has discussed comms have said budget cuts have increased their authority’s need to get its message across: residents need to understand why its services are changing.

But the influence of comms departments can go beyond that. At last week’s LGcommunications academy in Liverpool, the talk was all about how skilled comms officers can become influential players within councils – and within their wider local community – both in terms of how the area is perceived and in changing the behaviour of residents.

Ruby Bhattal, Nottingham City Council’s head of communications and marketing, told how her authority had “recalibrated” its approach to strategic communications over the past year.

“We’re going for a strategy that goes for fewer bigger, better campaigns,” she said. “We don’t have the resources to do marketing in the way we’d like to.”

Under its new approach priority campaigns are planned each year, each centred around the council’s most important business.

Paul Masterman, an independent consultant regarded as one of local government communication’s most influential voices, also emphasised the need for a strategic approach, urging comms professionals to take a seat at the “top table” of the council so they could appreciate its biggest priorities.

Comms professionals needed to ask questions such as what was keeping the chief executive and leader awake at night, he said.

“[Top councillors and officers] don’t care if you’re an expert on Snapchat. You need to become an insider who talks the official language, who acts like a strategic adviser – don’t act like a comms person,” Mr Masterman added.

Calling on comms professionals to be vocal in their dealings with these people, Mr Masterman said: “Don’t be ‘room meat’ caught at the top table when you realise you have F-all to say. If you are there make a contribution, however silly it seems to you – you should have the credibility.”

Mr Masterman also urged communicators to “drop the brand”, worrying less about what their organisation was seen to achieve when it was more important that partnerships focused on “strategic output for local people”. Place matters, not council.

On a similar issue, LGC attended one session on place making to ensure areas have a coherent message to attract investors and tourists, but also make sure residents feel a strong stake in their area.

Tim Lewis, strategy director from the Small Back Room agency, said it was vital residents “feel a sense of ownership in our brand”.

He urged councils seeking to bring about a change in how their area was perceived to be “authentic”, playing on its strengths. Mr Lewis said that at the recent Mipim real estate event he had seen many councils hold similar messages about how their area was a great place in which to live, work and invest.

“This is lazy branding – it’s the lazy option of sticking up a shiny new logo,” he said. “Everywhere sounds the same.”

“Place branding is about steering a place and its identity in the right direction so its residents and stakeholders feel a sense of ownership.”

The academy heard much about how council communicators could work with residents to change behaviours. Dan White, chief executive of the Behaviouralist behaviour change consultancy, explained how he had worked with Haringey LBC on changing the wording on letters to people in arrears on their council tax bills.

The recipients of such letters were divided into two groups, with those receiving the redesigned wording paying over £110,000 more than a control group over a 75-day period, potentially amounting to £400,000 over the year.

If communications departments can successfully increase revenue or boost an area’s chances of economic joy, it is easy to see how the argument about investing in communications teams can be won.

And, as LGC has already reported, if you get Noel Gallagher to endorse the creation of an elected mayor for your area, you are likely to see a higher turnout in next year’s mayoral polls. That’s what the Department for Communities & Local Government believes anyway.

ICYMI: The communications milestone: LGC’s special report produced in association with LGcommunications

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