Ashley Wilcox: Are we really being creative?

Last week, PRWeek looked at how local government is surviving the age of austerity. The comprehensive spending review does signify the most important change to the public sector in a generation.

Ashley Wilcox: we need more creativity
Ashley Wilcox: we need more creativity
There were calls to be creative - and yes, we need to be creative. But the problem seems to be that local government communicators aren’t challenging themselves but taking the easy option instead.

Are the solutions of reducing headcount, taking more services online, getting rid of your council magazine and selling services really the answers to the problem?

Yes, we face significant cuts and headcount has to be looked at, but let’s look at it creatively. Our current solution is that we aren’t replacing vacant posts. Shouldn’t we be looking at what we need to communicate for our organisation, design a new communications service around that and then reduce headcount around that - not carry on with what we already have? Let’s use this as an opportunity to innovate.

Local government has embraced digital communications, but we risk losing our advantage if we don’t use the range of tools out there together and effectively. Is it effective to have Facebook fans or just broadcast news releases from your council Twitter feed? Facebook works well as part of a campaign, but do people want to be fans of the council? Use Twitter for a conversation - don’t just broadcast your news.

It is also important to use social media tools in the right way. Integrate user-generated comments into your website – that really involves people. Add Foursquare to your website and work with it rather than just put up a few posters saying check in on Foursquare. What does that really achieve?

Embrace what the technology means – that will help us communicate and engage. So, again, let’s be creative and innovate.

The proposed Pickles’ Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity has really thrown a spanner at us, but why are so many councils scrapping their magazines?

Okay, the proposals are likely to become the new Code and we will have to produce four issues of our magazines in future. So let’s do that - don’t scrap them just to save some cash. The cash saved is always going to be low compared to what we will have to spend to get our good reputations back in a few years.

We all know magazines work. There is endless research that we reach people who don’t read the local press, don’t go online and sometimes we hit people who don’t have that much interest in the council because our magazines are good. So why stop them? Surely we are stopping our council from communicating effectively? We can be creative with four issues and use this effective, direct channel with residents as a core to our communications.

Selling our services also seems to go against what is good about local government communicators. We are a strong sector because we share ideas and encourage others to up their game. Sharing ideas through the CIPR seems logical to me rather than charging our neighbouring authorities thousands for advice just so we meet a budget target. It is hurting the local government comms family and if we all start selling, who is going to buy?

Sharing helps us all be creative and innovate. And to keep up with the changing times we need to be really creative and not just take the easy option.

Ashley Wilcox is Camden Council's corporate comms manager and the Chair of the CIPR local public services group

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