Alex Aiken: Memo to the new leader - the communication challenges we face

Some heads of communication will need to start looking for new jobs after the local elections. After every election the new political leaderships demand change, in policy, from services and in communications. Many communicators fail to adapt to changed circumstances.

Alex Aiken: Comms teams must be prepared for change
Alex Aiken: Comms teams must be prepared for change

For some PR managers this is a self inflicted wound. Over the years there have been too many dispiriting stories of unprofessional behaviour when faced with a new administration, freshly elected and full of purpose from a hard fought campaign.

There have been senior communications staff who didn’t attend the election count, failed to contact the new leader and proposed continuing with the same core messages without reference to the aspirations of a new council leadership.

Some officers have simply refused to recognise that things change. Few of them continued long in their role because local authority communications don’t work unless the leader, chief executive and head of communications are united and can articulate the vision of the administration.

PR people are adaptable but too many in local, and some in central, government seem to freeze when confronted with the democratic reality of a different political leadership.

This is not about learning a chameleon-like ability to say what a different party thinks, still less to evade the requirement to deliver politically neutral public relations.

It is about adapting to changed circumstances in a professional manner that recognises the voice of local people, as expressed through the ballot box and integrate that into council policy.

So the checklist for a head of communications facing the opportunity that a new administration presents should start with support, move to advice and then challenge the aspirations of the leadership to ensure that the public understand what the people they have just elected want to achieve for their communities.

Support should start with meeting and congratulating the new leader and explaining the role that communications offers  to advise and promote the administration.

Councillors need to understand that they have the support of the council officers to facilitate their work.

It’s extraordinary how many times communicators seem unable to simply call a new leader and say ‘well done, how can we help?’ It’s particularly critical as the first external people to call a new leader will be the media and a strong relationship in these early days reaps dividends later in a term of office in terms of establishing credibility.

Advice should cover a pre-prepared plan to allow the new leadership to meet the media, speak to staff and arrange to see the major opinion formers in the area.

High on the list should be an offer to place articles on the ambitions of the council in the main local paper, pitch for a slot on regional television news and set up a Leader’s blog. It’s also a sensible idea to offer media training, if you think that the principal people need some help.

The challenge involves asking the new leader what they want to achieve – what they want to be famous for after they leave office.

This is the critical test for anyone who aspires to be a ‘strategic’ communicator. It makes both sides think about how services should be delivered and how communications should be framed – messages, audiences and tone.

From this discussion you should be able to engage the whole organisation in adapting to the priorities of the new council and set out a new communications plan to achieve these goals.

This week has seen political change across the UK. These are significant elections because of the results but also because mayoral votes and the powers from the new Localism Act signal a fresh direction for our councils.

Political leadership, whether as head of a cabinet or a directly elected mayor will be critical to the renewal of local democracy. PR managers can play their role in strengthening local democracy by ensuring that the support, challenge and advice offered to leading councillors helps them stay on course and communicate effectively from the start of their term of office.

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

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