The events of 2017 underlined the importance of local government communicators working in partnership with their colleagues in other councils and across the public sector.
Put simply, no local authority can deal with events on the scale of the Grenfell Tower fire or a terrorist attack alone, and so it is encouraging to see that 70% of respondents to the Local Government Association’s heads of communication survey said they are intending to work more closely with partners.
Our annual findings from communications leaders in the sector offer an interesting insight into their priorities for 2018. Resident engagement and reputation remain important issues but, unsurprisingly, behaviour change and place branding are now growing areas of focus.
The average size of a council communications team is 8.3 full time-equivalent staff, which represents a slight drop since our last survey. With 28% of respondents also reporting their non-staffing budgets will be reduced in 2018-19, it is unsurprising more than half are planning to generate income.
Resources are constrained and workloads are growing, which underlines the need for there to be an unrelenting focus on priorities. Communicators need to ensure their activities are underpinned by a clear strategy that is linked to the organisation’s priorities and with a rigorous system of evaluation.
Only a third of respondents had an annual campaign plan signed off by their senior leadership, the absence of which leaves communications teams at the mercy of competing demands. Whilst 60% said their council had a corporate narrative, 40% did not. This is important: a strong narrative helps people understand what councils stand for, their plans for the future and how they are seeking to improve places and lives.
The survey results show again that communicators still have some way to go before their profession is seen as a truly strategic function. Only a third of respondents sit on their organisation’s corporate or senior management team, with only a quarter reporting to their chief executive. Whilst it is tempting to obsess too much about structures, this shows communicators need to focus on delivering outcome and impact-focussed work that deliver real results and add value.
It will be interesting to see how the relations between local government communicators and other organisations continue to develop over the course of the year. More than seven out of ten respondents work with their partners on joint campaigns, and 59% provide mutual aid in a crisis. However, only five% are currently sharing staff and three% have joint budgets. The concept of place-based communications hubs has been around for some time, but has clearly not taken off. Could 2018 be the year when we start to see more movement in this area?
Matt Nicholls, head of communications support, Local Government Association