There are five major challenges and potential opportunities that are already obvious this year.
First retaining public confidence while cutting services. You cannot and should not disguise library closures or reductions in highway maintenance but you can involve and inform the public about the choices we face and how public services will change. Honesty is better than obfuscation, in internal and external communication. Early and regular discussion and reporting back to community leaders - and to staff - will help local authorities retain a reputation for competent handling of a difficult situation.
Second, getting the basics right. PR people must be advocates for the public, not just their master’s voice. The criticism heaped on councils over the Christmas period was magnified by the indifferent response of many councils. It is obvious that Christmas happens every year, weather may be poor and it is arguably more important at this time to show what public services can do to help people. Communication managers should be planning ahead and robustly putting the case for early and effective communications when things that affect the whole community require local leadership.
Third, accelerating the move from broadcast to conversational PR, and recognising that this is different from playing at social media. The decline in trust in institutions, the move from a ‘deference’ to ‘reference’ culture and the poor economic outlook mean that government at every level has to be more responsive to public aspirations. Every campaign we run should address a clear public need, aimed at a specific behavioural objective and have r.e.a.l (relevant, evaluated, actionable, listening) public engagement at its heart.
Fourth, embracing the new world of localism. The proposed new powers in the Decentralisation Bill are significant and will change how we operate, requiring some structural changes such as the move to elected Mayor’s and greater community focus. Thinking through how communications will operate in this new era and coping with the proposed changes to the Code of Conduct must be part of proper planning, and advice to the political and managerial leadership.
Finally, the Royal Wedding. This, like snow, flu and grit is an opportunity and a threat, particularly for local government. Tabloid stories of failure to fly flags, show royal respect or help local people organise street parties write themselves. Getting the communications right, with offers to help local people who want to bring the community together is an area where PR officers can provide a positive platform for public service.
There will be many other challenges we face because 2011 will be the toughest year for public service and therefore public service communications, for 30 years – since 1981, the year of another royal wedding and public spending cuts. Recognising the problems ahead of time, mitigating the impact and seizing the opportunities will separate the PR managers who will succeed in this new era from those who will struggle to find a role in these changed times.
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council