Gone are the days when community consultation meant a pull up banner in a dusty village hall.
In these times of unprecedented change and economic pressure, public sector organisations are having to engage with more disparate audiences about complex issues which hugely impact upon lives, like where we are going to live and who is going to look after us.
We can all cite examples of when a breakdown in communication has led to failed partnerships or initiatives that became sitting targets for public and media criticism. This is why being experts in communications is not just for communications teams. Now more than ever, those working in the public sector, from frontline staff to senior leaders, also need to be expert communicators too.
Whatever the issue we’re navigating, whether it’s the NHS and councils forming a sustainability and transformation partnership or consulting with village residents on a proposed housing local plan, a clear communications strategy with a simple narrative that resonates with people and stakeholders is vital for achieving positive outcomes.
This is made all the more challenging by shifting audiences and demographics. Society’s expectations of good service are changing. Today, we expect to be able to order something and receive it tomorrow, having been able to track its whole journey. If this doesn’t happen, people will immediately look to social media to air their disappointment. This is the backdrop against which public sector organisations are having to engage people in streamlining services, efficiencies and changes to their local areas.
So how do we evolve our thinking and the way we consult, with this in mind? How can we ensure we are reaching the right people with our stories and that their voices are heard? Well, we go to where they congregate, rather than expecting them to come to us. For instance, this summer, we ran a consultation event in a pub beer garden, where we engaged with more than 100 local people on a challenging issue; people who we never would have reached through traditional tactics.
Creating successful partnerships and engaging with communities is no easy feat. If I’ve learnt anything over my 25-year career, it’s that you need to meet people where they are at. And have a strategy! These are challenging times but we can achieve great things if we get the story right and if we speak to people on their turf, whether that’s down the pub or in the hallowed halls of Westminster.
John Quinton-Barber, group managing director, Social Communications
Column sponsored and supplied by Social Communications
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