On the plus side, there are five lessons, we should take from the poll as we approach the series of council meetings which will set local tax for the year.
First, the news that confidence in local authorities is falling should be taken as a encouragement to more ‘jaw, jaw’ rather than ‘war war’ over service cuts. The poll shows that the decline in local reputation can be seen in part to the continuing battle between the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and councils.
It appears that the public are simply fed up with the rows, and lose confidence in both sides, given the similar decline in confidence in national government. There is a fine line for communicators to judge between leading and defending their communities in hard times and simply attacking the government. Highlighting your plan to deal with fewer resources shows leadership, insulting politicians as ‘clowns’ looks desperate.
Second, it is even more important to have a clear and simple narrative about what we are trying to do. This is simple. At a time of reduced resources we are focusing on fair tax, clean streets and protecting the most vulnerable. PR people should be using this mantra to project the core attributes we can deliver – valuable caring local services - to protect reputation and show people that we have a plan for dealing with the economic crisis.
Third, its time to pension off the press office and formally move to combined media and digital comms teams. The news that one in eight people are accessing council information through social media, and nearly half get it via the web should led to a speedy merging of media and web teams where it doesn’t already exist to ensure we comprehensively reach our audiences. But the poll also shows that local papers are not dying, they appear to be thriving and paper and electronic channels are jointly used to seek out information that leads to a judgment on local reputation.
Fourth, we need to get better at public involvement, given the worrying decline at a time when we should be consulting people about budgets. This starts with our staff. Now is the time we should be honest with them about the scale of the cutbacks and properly engage them in coming forward with ideas for how to deliver services differently. The same innovation challenge can be set in every locality, asking people how they would do things as long as we are prepared to listen and act on the feedback.
Finally, we should recognise that the public mood is divided and audiences should be segmented and engaged in conversations that match their concerns. The poll identifies two critical groups – the ‘optimists’, predominantly younger married women who believe that their local council will find a way through the problems and the ‘pessimists’, largely working middle aged men who think that their authority doesn’t have the skills to deal with the problems facing the community.
Reinforcing the view of the optimists by showing that there is plan, explaining the facts and maintaining the public profile of the authority will help keep them as advocates of local services. The pessimists need to be shown that their council is seeking to save every penny, cutting back office costs and putting spare cash into frontline services to address their hostility.
The darkening public mood means that government at every level needs brilliant PR, in terms of clever strategy, targeted influence and great tactical delivery. The test for communicators is whether they can rise to this challenge as their own resources diminish.
They can do this by using the evidence of the public mood to get their organisations to think about the people they serve rather than becoming obsessed with the internal difficulties around setting budgets and making staff redundant.
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council