Alex Aiken: It is time to make digital communications central to campaign objectives

The news that the Department for Communities is to 'go digital' should focus all public service communicators on the strategic use of e-communications.

Alex Aiken: digital provides an opportunity for all councils
Alex Aiken: digital provides an opportunity for all councils

For too long we've been obsessed with the tactical use of Facebook and Twitter. Some have done this well, for example Coventry's 14,000 fans and Lambeth's 4,000 followers. But for many it has been the PR equivalent of a toddler in the paddling tool, tentative and unsure of the goal. 

For the past ten years local government PR has focused on using big broadcast tools - newspapers, press releases and advertising campaigns to deliver changes in perceptions and behaviour. This has produced many memorable campaigns; from the urgency of the 'Not Another Drop' campaign in Brent, combating youth violence to Norfolk's effective Road Safety campaigns.

But as the political landscape is changing, so should the approach to communications. In hindsight 2010 will be seen as a landmark year for local public service communications in the light of three major changes.

First, the new Code of Conduct has forced people to rethink their approach. Second, the new budgetary realities; a 25% cut for most PR teams has meant that the best teams have focused on what really makes a cost effective impact.

Third, the new political reality of' 'localism', means that we have to recalibrate our communications towards neighbourhoods and communities.

It's time to consider in the new world, our goals and the tools at our disposal. And it's vital to think about objectives before we dive into selecting the tools, however bright or shiny they seem.

The objectives that communicators have to deliver against are changing. The absolute focus has to be on maintaining public trust and confidence by showing that the local authority, health trust fire or police service  can remain deliver better serves at a time of cost cutting - demonstrating value for money.

Failure to do this, or a focus on 'bleeding stumps' will simply mean that public may lose faith in government and political parties. PR managers need to remind their leadership of this risk. There also needs to be a renewed focus on the economic role of the authority, promoting investment and securing jobs to show that we understand the major challenge facing the nation.

The urgency of the economic situation mean that worthy campaigns on areas like recycling and leisure should be secondary to the push on how the public serviced is helping create jobs or protect business. Communicators should embrace this new agenda and shape their campaigns to support these objectives. 

Communication tools are also changing. The council magazine, issued borough or county-wide four or six times a year still provides a useful foundation for informing people about local public service, but needs to be supplemented with more targeted communication.

Every authority should tailor communications to the needs of neighbourhoods, recognising that in uncertain times, a ‘focus on the local’ through supporting community websites, neighbourhood events, ward forums or community newsletters is likely to prove more effective than generalised material. In London, both Hammersmith and Richmond are going down this path with more local communications.

It is time to make digital communications central to campaign objectives. This means recognising that the website is not just a transactional tool, and PR has a central role to play in its management and development. 

Effective communications will help shift customers who used to attend council offices to online channels, reducing costs and improving satisfaction as long as the website is up to date. An effective use of e-mail, can drive people online and target information at specific groups.

The leading authorities can already email up to 50,000 people a month and have subsidiary databases for groups such as businesses and those interested in planning issues. The London Borough of Southwark emails around 4,000 people each month and effectively uses this tool to engage people in consultations and make them aware of new services from the council. 

This approach, supported by a judicious use of Twitter, should form the core of a new approach to cost effective communications. All this is set out in Preston council’s useful guide to using social media.

Has there has ever been a really effective local government campaign that combined all aspects of digital media? There have been some impressive individual efforts - Greater Manchester Police and Walsall Council through their 24 hour Tweets, for example. But where are the truly integrated web, email, twitter campaigns that changed behaviour?

At a time of change, it's easy to let the scale of political and economic challenges overwhelm organisations. So, it is even more important that public relations practitioners focus their organisations on the central issues and master new communication tools that can, when used properly improve outcomes and cut costs, which is precisely what public service needs in 2012. 

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

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