Alex Aiken: ten ways to economise during the age of austerity

It's inevitable reductions in budget will flow from the Comprehensive Spending Review. Every PR manager must now consider how they will economise during the coming age of austerity. My checklist for doing so is as follows.

Alex Aiken: time for a fundamental rethink
Alex Aiken: time for a fundamental rethink

First, a fundamental rethink about how we can shape reputation with the available resources. The average size of a communications team in local authorities is around 10 staff and a budget of £1million. That average is likely to reduce by around a third to around six staff and under £700,000 over the next three years. If you were given that sum to spend on public communications would you organise it in the way it is currently configured to do so? It’s time to concentrate on the things that really have impact, rather than the nice to have initiatives. A good way of testing this is the LGA’s ‘Reputation Test’ to see whether you are properly focusing on priorities.  

Second, take the opportunity to unify council communications, consultation and potentially customer service functions. We know that the public perception of the ability to influence the authority’s decisions and the standard of customer service determine reputation, so move these teams together to form a team to properly manage reputation. Staffordshire are doing this, saving money and improving communication.

Third, share campaigns, publications and other activity with other public services. There should be joint health and community reassurance campaigns in every locality. Blackburn are a leading authority in this regard, and a model for the future.

Fourth, question the purpose of and then track every publication and event to understand which really make a difference. Cut out the least effective ones and return the budget to the general fund.

Fifth, agree with your management board performance indicators that focus on 5-10 strong campaigns with measurable outcomes. Nottingham City Council’s focused approach to communication is a good example in this area.

Six, cut down on the council magazines, particularly if you are producing a significant number each year. Research has shown that four to six is optimal to inform the community about what the authority is doing.

Seventh, put the internal newspaper online, and only print for those staff who really need a paper copy, but make sure that you keep up the pace of internal communication with weekly briefings for managers.

Eight, build a good email database and use this to keep community leaders and citizens in touch with a monthly email newsletter. At the same time you might want to recognise that effective email has more impact that Twitter or Facebook in disseminating messages. Authorities like Southwark are reaching 1,500 a month through this channel.

Ninth, review your management structure. It probably makes sense to cut management posts and focus on retaining the maximum number of staff to focus on the frontline effort of delivering campaigns, coverage and community engagement.

Finally, use part of the savings to invest in the things you need in the new environment – training in new areas like behaviour change, research capacity to prove your worth and recruiting new staff in entry level posts who can then be trained to deliver.

None of this is easy, but seeking to lead and shape the inevitable changes is preferable to just letting people take decisions for you.

Alex Aiken is director of communications at Westminster City Council

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