Local authority communicators will be no doubt planning their celebrations too, but we have pressing diary dates ahead – the Chancellor’s autumn statement on December the 5th, and the details of local Government spending expected later than usual on the 19th December. The backdrop to the season of goodwill will for us be tough talk on budgets and the inevitability of more cuts. You could almost picture Bob Cratchit scratching at his ledger in A Christmas Carol.
Despite that forbidding atmosphere, council communicators, need to be planning a lively schedule of activities throughout Christmas and the New Year right now. December and the holiday season will crash quickly enough into January, and we need to be going to our residents with a resonant and meaningful statement of what the council is doing to help them and show it is on their side.
Our New Year resolution can be summed up by three headings: value for money; mission, and opportunity. These three themes need to start permeating our communications work over the Christmas and New Year holidays in the same way that Christmas cakes will be fed with brandy for the next few weeks.
We should be matching a council story to each day of the advent calendar in December. Here are just a few starters:
Promote the work of those staff who will be working over the holidays while the country sinks into an armchair – from adult services looking after the vulnerable to street wardens, social workers, planning enforcement and emergency housing repairs staff.
Show what trading standards are doing to remove cheap and downright dangerous rip-offs of this year’s top-selling toys. This is where public service really comes into its own.
The Christmas and New Year party season will inevitably mean scenes of excess on many high streets. Illustrate the valuable role that community protection staff do by ensuring that high spirits do not spill into something uglier. In Westminster, we have a member of staff working on the "booze bus" which scoops up (literally in some cases) those who have overdone it on Christmas cheer. They are going to write us a blog about their night-time experience…which I suspect may make sobering reading.
So tweet it, blog it, press release it, offer it as a broadcast opportunity – as we know, the newsroom planning diary can be perilously thin over the holiday period and represents fertile territory for a well-constructed story prospect.
Ensure above all your communication work demonstrates to residents that council employees are working hard throughout the holiday period to deliver excellent value for money services. Puncture the lazy media central casting stereotype of the public sector worker taking outlandish holiday breaks well into the New Year.
Then New Year’s Day should be the starting point for a fresh round of communications activity. At its heart is the authority’s vision of what it plans to achieve in 2013. Use the chief executive for the internal message and the leader for your external communications with a letter to community leaders or a first person piece in a well read local paper. Or why not video it and tweet the link through your social media channels? This, after all, is where many of our residents are now consuming their media.
This is the point where you frame the council’s purpose with a series of milestones that resonate with local people. What are the major projects? How are you demonstrating even better value for money? What is the big idea that illustrates innovation and an ambition beyond simply repeating 2012?
As the country limps back to work in early January, make an early start by showcasing the services residents may have used during the break – leisure centres and parks to entertain the children; markets hosted in town centres; the recycling centre that takes all those bottles and mounds of Christmas packaging; and the bin crews who remove the groaning wheelie bins from our doorsteps.
As we know, most New Year resolutions scarcely make it to February. As council communicators, let’s make sure value, mission and opportunity stay bright all year, and don’t get packed away with the Christmas decorations.
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council.