Taking comms down a level: communicating the Northern Powerhouse

The good news, according to a recent BBC survey, is that people agree with Chancellor George Osborne's Northern Powerhouse plan to jump-start the economy and give away power in the North of England. The bad news is that they haven't heard of it, writes Warwick Smith of Instinctif.

Could the Northern Powerhouse herald a new type of politics? asks Warwick Smith
Could the Northern Powerhouse herald a new type of politics? asks Warwick Smith
For a politician this is certainly a better state of affairs than the other way around, and the situation could be worse - nearly half of people surveyed have heard of the Northern Powerhouse, and about a third do actually know what it involves. 

That’s not bad for an idea that is still at the speeches and press releases stage.

In part, higher awareness is a matter of time – repetition of messages and increased use of social and local media closer to the target audience will all have an impact.  

Awareness also depends on delivery. People will need to see new jobs and infrastructure becoming a reality. Comms has a role to play in shaping this reality by attracting business investment and maintaining public support.

Osborne is hoping for a lot more than awareness though – he wants people to believe that the plan is working and to give him credit for its success. 

After which he hopes they might lend their votes to the Conservative Party.  

It is this deeper communication that presents the challenge. People aren’t going to take the Government’s word for it. 

Success will need to be recognised by third parties, including, paradoxically, some of the Government’s political opponents.

One of the Government’s biggest achievements so far has been its largely successful co-operation with Labour-controlled Northern urban councils, particularly in the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority. 

These have been won over by the devolution of power and money and will remain Osborne’s improbable allies. 

It is the word of these councils, together with that of the business community, that will give credibility to the idea that the Powerhouse is succeeding.

These local authorities have a tremendous opportunity.
 
They will have a range of new powers, and will need to work out how to use them. 

One way to do this will be direct engagement with local communities, including individuals, charities and community groups. 

These consultation exercises will also be comms exercises – a chance to link specific local change to the bigger picture. 

This involvement will be a positive development. Getting more people involved in the Northern Powerhouse will help them own and believe it.

Businesses too, be they infrastructure builders and operators or new investors, will also have need and opportunity to engage more with local communities, and the Government and local authorities will want to think about how to use this activity to reinforce the link to the Powerhouse as a whole.

Labour councils won’t want to let Osborne get the credit for success. They will want to minimise central Government’s role and stress their own. 

Still, imagine that – political parties competing to take the credit for success rather than avoid the blame for failure. That really would be a new politics.

Warwick Smith is managing partner of public policy at Instinctif Partners

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