John Shewell: Yes We Can!

Barack Obama clearly understood the power of communications and pioneered the use of social media in political campaigning to harness the goodwill of people and create a movement based on a simple story - change.

John Shewell: Strikes demonstrated yet again the power of social media
John Shewell: Strikes demonstrated yet again the power of social media

For communications professionals change should be the one constant.

At last week’s PRCA national conference one of the main topics discussed was the evolving nature of communications.

Practitioners from private, public and the third sector gathered to discuss, debate and share ideas on where the industry is now and heading.

One thing delegates agreed on was that communications is moving into new, and potentially unknown, territory. These are truly exciting times to be in communications – despite the doom and gloom gripping the nation.

The public sector is well-placed to evolve the communications agenda given the current economic climate. As the saying goes necessity is the mother of innovation.

Social media is already playing an influential role in shaping reputations and yesterday’s strikes across the country demonstrated yet again the power of this medium to inform, inspire and involve people.

Westminster City Council’s director of communications, Alex Aiken, recently pointed out that digital communications should be central to any communications strategy.

Quite right, but the role and model of communications is constantly evolving. Communications must be based around knowledge based relationships.

Ross Dawson (blogger and business futurist) wrote an article in Marketing magazine six years ago, "Six facets of the future of PR", in which he summed up perfectly the direction of communications:

"The future belongs to those firms that can successfully engage their clients in true knowledge-based relationships that are based on deep mutual knowledge, and a high degree of collaboration in achieving outcomes."

In short, comms teams need to understand their organisation’s "eco-system" – the interrelated parts of the internal and external system which form the whole, but critically to understand how these various parts of the overall system work together.

By taking a ‘helicopter view’ of the internal and external environment, communications can play an even greater strategic role in supporting the organisation in shaping the organisation’s story within this eco-system.

Collaboration will become a key feature in communications. The Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) has been running an innovative project with Peterborough Council and the Arts Council called ‘Citizen Power’.

The project aims to increase the capacity of Peterborough residents to play a bigger part in shaping the future of their services, city and neighbourhoods.

The return on investment is impressive. The council invested £520,000 in the project but returned over £700,000 to Peterborough through collaboration in the design and delivery of services.

This has done an enormous amount of good to the reputation of the council by fostering a stronger working relationship with residents.

The public sector should consider developing a ‘network strategy’ as a central component of their communications strategy, which can span internally and externally as well as informally and formally.

Public sector communications is uniquely placed to lead this agenda given the various partnerships and interaction with citizens and stakeholders. It should be the natural territory for public sector communicators to develop these opportunities in a bid to build their organisation’s reputation.

Communications is evolving and the public sector should be at the forefront of this agenda.

John Shewell is head of comms at Brighton & Hove City Council

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