Luke Blair: Council comms must stand by cuts

Town halls across the country are heading into perhaps their most challenging months since the dark days of the 1980s, when they all came under siege from the government of Margaret Thatcher.

'Stand by the decisions': Luke Blair
'Stand by the decisions': Luke Blair
As we know from the extraordinary scenes of protest at council meetings in the last couple of weeks, this year’s round of budget-setting will be unlike any other in recent memory.

In London alone, my agency has been keeping a watch on the figures and has calculated a total of around £500m in cuts, spread across the boroughs. The most severe are currently expected in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney, Lambeth and Southwark.

The stakes are high. Some of the most heavily affected boroughs are hosting Olympic venues. And 2012 is not only the year of the Olympics, but also the next election for London Mayor – Boris and Ken round two.

So making cuts without irreparably damaging services, avoiding turning London into an embarrassment in front of millions of visitors, and trying not to lose votes in the process, will be the major challenge for local government in the financial year 2011-2012.

Many councils have reserves to fall back on, in some cases substantial. The argument will be how much of this reserve cash they should leave in their coffers for a rainy day – central government says 2.5%, others between 5% and 8%.

Of course, the media has already started pointing the finger at the amount spent by some boroughs on marketing and PR, contrasted against cuts to social care and other frontline services.

But the fact is, communicating the impact and managing the fallout of the deepest public spending cuts for 30 years is a major challenge for under pressure town hall comms teams. This is going to get very tough indeed.

So I have just three short pieces of advice – meant in a spirit of helpfulness and understanding, rather than trying to teach anyone to suck eggs.

Firstly, keep focused. When all around you are losing their heads, that is just the time to maintain a calm, professional exterior and, gently and tactfully, remind everyone what they need to do to keep the show on the road.  Not easy, especially when those in your own team may themselves be directly affected. Recognise what your colleagues are going through, be sympathetic – but don’t be distracted.

Secondly, related to this, constantly keep in mind what your objectives are – what is the actual aim here? To stand by the decisions, however tough, and explain why they had to be made? To protect the reputation of the council and its leaders and decision-makers and what they have collectively chosen to do?  

This is in many ways more challenging than anything else, since it implies a level of non-politicisation that most people will simply never have experienced before. It is exceptionally difficult to speak convincingly and forcefully about a decision you may not, personally and privately, agree with. However, that may be just the job that is required.

Thirdly and finally, acknowledge success by understanding that small victories by yesterday’s standards may be huge in the current context. A small correction in a local paper may represent a glimmer of light in months of otherwise unmitigated darkness – and whoever achieved it deserves recognition.

Rewarding people who continue to deliver the goods under pressure is the best way of motivating a team, keeping people together, and keeping people on track. Comms teams will be drawn together by adversity – they will need to be, to survive.

If this sounds too bleak (or indeed, too patronising) I apologise. But I do think it is going to get rough out there. And I very much salute those in our industry who are going to be bearing the brunt of it.

Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency

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