Alex Aiken: follow Alastair Campbell and shape your council's strategy

Alastair Campbell endorsed the government's approach to spending cuts this week. He was careful not to endorse the policies, but argued that the Coalition's ability to frame the debate gave them a critical strategic advantage in the battle for public opinion over the future of public services.

Alex Aiken: shape strategy
Alex Aiken: shape strategy
Campbell was speaking at the CIPR’s Local Public Services conference and his masterly presentation set the tone for a successful event. He argued that public service communicators who could grasp, articulate and implement strategy would prosper in a far more challenging world.

He cited four major changes that make the task facing communicators even more challenging. First, distrusted politicians seen as responding to, rather than leading the agenda. Second, a convergence between the role of citizen and customer. Third, a radically changed ‘participatory’ media environment and finally the ‘infinite’ quantity of information we are now expected to process.  

These are powerful arguments for the importance of communications as we enter the post-CSR world. We are now in an environment where the public appears to have partially endorsed the government’s strategy – protect health and education while targeting welfare – although their views will probably change as service cuts become real and lead to the withdrawal of care workers and street sweepers.

As decisions are made the political complexion of local authorities will undoubtedly colour some responses and set up targets to blame. But this would miss a crucial element in the debate. If public services try and blame other parts of government for ‘cuts’ the public may well simply assume that we are incapable of leading our communities through the recession in public finances. They may not come to our aid as we seek to mobilise citizens to help in the ‘Big Society’ or the co-production of public services.

Thinking through these issues and the impact of our public positioning is a critical role for heads of communication in the months ahead. First will come the challenge of budget setting in December and January; then the explanation as council tax bills go out in February, moving into a third stage as the first round of cuts begin to bite from April, and redundancy notice are issued.

Rather than focusing on rushing out press releases about cuts or voluntary provision, PR managers should step back, and consider the threats and opportunities for their authorities over these months in terms of three questions. First, what is the objective they are trying to deliver? Second, what strategy should be deployed to enable the public to understand what the authority is trying to do? And third, which tactics will deliver the strategy and achieve the objective?

John Barradell, Brighton Council’s Chief Executive, echoed Campbell’s argument and set council communicators a challenge at the CIPR event. He said those who survived the cuts would be those who could demonstrably shape the strategy of local public services because they understood how to shape reputation and also had a clear grasp of the financial and service challenges facing their services.

As we enter a more difficult and demanding phase of life in public service we should use the Campbell-Barradell doctrine as a guide to effective public service communication.  

Alex Aiken is director of communications and strategy at Westminster City Council

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