John Shewell: Internal comms - put people first

Local public service comms teams need to focus on internal comms as the sector goes through one of its most challenging periods.

John Shewell: 'Time for a new kind of leadership'
John Shewell: 'Time for a new kind of leadership'

Public sector organisations face the daunting prospect of massive spending cuts being made across the sector. This is going to place enormous strain on the staff who will be anxious about their future career prospects with the organisation and beyond.

According to a recent report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development stress was the most common cause for absenteeism. Their research found that absence rates are higher in the public sector than in the private sector.

The Local Government Chronicle reported that the main reason cited for such high levels of absences was because of organisational change. Comms teams must place a premium on internal communications and collaborate very closely with HR (including learning and development), policy and senior officers.

The message must focus on an honest assessment of what is happening. There’s no point sugaring the pill. Tell it as it is and focus on the long road ahead.
Explain that times will be tough and difficult decisions will be made; that people will have to be made redundant while demand for high quality services will continue.

The key is leadership. This is not about offering ‘strong’ leadership, but about offering genuine emotional intelligence and being able to look staff in the eyes and asking them to give that little bit extra.

It’s also a time for a different type of leadership. As we ask people to work differently – we need to mean it and back it up with additional support if necessary to show that we value our people and are prepared to invest in them.

Cutting staff at this crucial time is not the only answer – and potentially a negative approach. Instead, organisations should be investing in their people, offering support and nurturing talent, so that the organisation is best placed to weather the current storm and be in a stronger place for the future.

Comms heads should challenge the orthodox leadership methods. Ask the senior leadership team if there is another way to achieve the savings without losing people, but more importantly safeguarding the morale and reputation of the organisation.

Local public service chief executives have the chance to really shine by putting their arms around their people and leading them through these dark days.
Generals understand the importance of ‘bringing everyone home’ but in reality they know there will be casualties – that’s the nature of war. But they never abandon their people and stand firmly by their side.

If organisations manage to support their people through these tough times they are likely to emerge with a committed workforce determined to deliver excellent services, and most importantly become advocates for the organisation.

Local public service needs leaders of this calibre and comms teams will be central to this mission.

John Shewell is the head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council.


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