Alex Aiken: Where have all the heads of communication gone?

The news that Leicestershire County Council will abolish its head of communications post marks the latest evidence of a worrying trend to downgrade the top PR role in local government.

Alex Aiken: 'worrying trend'
Alex Aiken: 'worrying trend'

Local authorities are making deep cuts in their communications team, but a number are also choosing to do without a lead role, reversing the advances of recent years to put PR on the top table.

There appears to be an increasing number of councils where there has been a discussion about whether the organisation needs a PR chief, with authorities as diverse as the Isle of Wight, Leeds and Oldham among the authorities who have been through such debates.

Alongside councils like Leicestershire and Northamptonshire that have cut the top job are another set of councils who have struggled to fill the most senior role – the communications director roles at two major counties – Essex and Kent have been vacant or staffed on an interim basis for many months.

So we have two emerging trends. First, a downgrading of existing roles. Second, recruiters apparently struggling to fill some of the best communication roles in local government.

Many authorities have made slash and burn reductions in communications spending when they should have thought strategically about what they need communications to achieve at a time of huge public concern about the direction of public services. At just the time when great communications advice is most needed we are seeing a thinning out of the top ranks.

There is substantial evidence to show that better communications and more spending on communications has improved the overall reputation of local government. Between 2005 and 2010 there was a near doubling - from 16 per cent to 28 per cent - in the number of people saying that they would speak highly of their local authority.

Three in five (59 per cent) now say that they feel informed about the services their council offers. Initiatives like the ‘Connecting with Communities’ and ‘Reputation’ projects helped improve public trust in local services and there is a real danger that this progress will be lost over the next few years.

Councils considering further reductions in their PR capacity might like to consider the latest evidence from the monthly Populus/LGInsight poll that shows that there are significant reputational storm clouds on the horizon.

The impact of services changes will start to kick in and they will be delivered by staff demoralized by a relentless downgrading of their role and their sector. Councils will also have to hope that the winter is milder than earlier this year.

The reputational knock they took at the time by being too slow to clear away snow could be compounded by their current underinvestment in road maintenance. Already half (53 per cent) of Britons are dissatisfied with the quality of roads in their area and it doesn’t look like the investment will be there to address this in the near future.

The best authorities will whether the storm. You can easily correlate the performance of stronger authorities with those that have experienced and effective communication directors, from Somerset, to Coventry through Derbyshire to Manchester to list a few of them.
The new government agenda and spending reductions have created significant turmoil in local government over the last year. Downsizing of PR functions was both necessary and inevitable in the context of overall spending reductions.

But now it is time for council leaders and chief executives to urgently review the actions that they have taken and consider whether they have damaged their ability to explain what they are doing, engage with their publics and retain public trust. And that process should start with having an effective communications leader in the organisation.    

Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council

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