John Shewell: Be prepared for the next round of union protests

30 November 2011 is shaping up to be a big day for public sector comms as the unions take to the streets in protest over a range of issues, notably over public sector pay and pensions.

John Shewell: 'public sector communicators will need to walk a very shaky tight-rope'
John Shewell: 'public sector communicators will need to walk a very shaky tight-rope'

The timing is important given recent events such as the economic crisis engulfing Europe and anti-capitalism protests staged across the globe, including those at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

This is also the time when many local authorities will be discussing their financial year budgets – so it’s going to be a difficult message to staff and citizens.

Therefore, expect November 30 to become a clarion call for workers across the public sector to unite against the cuts.

For public sector communications they will need to walk a very shaky tight-rope consisting of the scale and implications of the cuts, which could also have an impact on the comms team, while trying to tell a compelling story to motivate staff.

Comms must also cut its cloth and raise the bar. This doesn’t mean accepting more work with fewer resources. It means working on specific areas that will have the highest impact to the organisation’s reputation. As the saying goes, 'less is more'.

Comms teams need to think about creating an ‘amplifier effect’ which is about focussing on those issues that will gain traction over a sustained period of time. Focus on issues not services, and make the case for a fairer deal for local citizens.

Build a clear vision for the future and explain the stages of the journey so people can understand how the organisation will get there. Comms must support the leaders of their organisations reassure staff and citizens.

Be honest about the scale of the challenge and invite people to participate in solving some of these problems. And take the time and effort to meet people, listen to their concerns and respond quickly.

Use evidence to drive comms; and use it to explain what the team is doing for the organisation.

Westminster City Council recently published a report called ‘Evaluating Your Communications Tools: What Works, What Doesn’t?’ which offers some practical tips on how to conduct evaluation on a shoestring.

Head of research and customer insight at Westminster City Council, Neil Wholey, said: ‘We need to focus on the outcomes that need to be achieved by comms activity and that most if not all comms activity can be measured in some way.’

Get into the habit of prioritising evaluation and making it an inherent part of the communications cycle. This will help inform decision-making both for the comms team and the organisation’s leadership.

These are tough times and comms teams need to help steady the ship.


John Shewell is the head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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