Observing local government communications in 2017, it is tempting to concur with the adage that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.
There has been a transformation in the way we consume and communicate information. Councils have never had so many platforms on which to get their message across, and many are delivering cutting-edge communications.
And yet some polls in 2017 showed a decline in the number of people who said they felt informed about their council.
The LGA’s communications peer reviews, part of our sector-led improvement programme, have revealed some emerging trends.
Councils increasingly realise many of the big strategic challenges they face – income generation, behaviour change, demand management and place-branding – cannot be successfully met without effective, strategic communications. Given the events of 2017, the requirement to have robust emergency communications plans in place cannot be overstated and nor can the need to inform and engage with local communities.
So how do we meet these challenges at a time when many communications budgets continue to be reduced? Part of the responsibility lies with communications teams. They need to ensure their activities align closely with the priorities of the council, even when time and money are scarce.
But as we consistently stress in peer reviews, communication is a shared responsibility. Crucial issues such as protecting the most vulnerable and ensuring staff are highly motivated cannot rest within a single team.
Budget reductions have meant a large number of senior communications posts in the sector have been lost. In some cases, this has resulted in a growing disconnect between communications teams and the top of the organisation. Senior managers see a lot of good individual pieces of work but often don’t feel this activity joins together to support the organisation’s strategic direction. Conversely, communications teams often feel they do not understand or are unable to influence what those priorities are.
We communicators have long argued that a seat at the organisation’s top table is the solution, and this remains true. But in reality, there are increasingly fewer spaces at those tables, and not enough cash to create many more. So, we have to ensure communicators have the ability to advise and influence their senior leaders.
There is a desire among chief executives and leaders to understand what ‘good’ communication looks like today. We can talk about some of the principles – strategic, insight-driven and outcome-focused – to name just a few. But how does that translate into a model that will be effective and affordable?
It is more than a decade since the Local Government Association launched the Reputation Campaign, which set out a blueprint for how good communications can increase levels of satisfaction among residents. In the New Year, we will be working with LG Comms and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers to develop a fresh approach to reflect the more complex and varied challenges councils face today.
Matt Nicholls, head of communication support, LGA