Alex Aiken: 'Change focus of public comms'

The new British Attitudes Survey suggests that public service communicators need to change the focus of their communications.

Alex Aiken: 'Change focus of public comms'
Alex Aiken: 'Change focus of public comms'

The survey appears to shows that the population is moving away from a belief in state solutions and placing more emphasis on individual responsibility. It reports that 63% believe parents who "don’t want to work" are to blame for children living in child poverty. It also shows that while 30% feel we should pay more taxes to improve health, education and social benefits, a decade ago this figure was 60%. And 54% said social security benefits are too high and discourage people from finding jobs, against 35% in 1983.

There may be many reasons for these changes. It might be that people simply don’t think that government is able to sort out their problems. People might be observing the reduction in services and conclude that there isn’t the cash for the state to fund what it previously delivered. On a more positive note these trends may be the result of a stronger belief in family and neighbourhood solutions, which presents opportunities for local government.

Towards the end of a momentous year the findings should be taken seriously as an indication of the opportunities and challenges available to those working in government public relations. I think that there are four major lessons we can pick out of shifting social attitudes as we plan our communications for 2012.

First, as Eric Pickles announcement over council tax referenda demonstrates, perceived value for money will still be central to the narrative about the success of local government. This is not a question of low versus high tax; it is about how well the money is spent. Take two authorities that have run campaigns over 2011 to demonstrate value for money, Labour-led Southwark and Conservative-run Westminster. Both have had similar satisfaction ratings of over 70% and value for money ratings of over 50% while their council tax is over £500 different comparing B and D properties. But effective communication of what they do with the money supports public confidence in each authority.

Second, PR people should include a briefing on the Localism Act in their Christmas reading and think through how their authority can utilise the new power of general competence, neighbourhood governance and transparency agenda to reconnect their council to local people. In 2012 all communications should be local and some councils, like Hammersmith & Fulham are already focusing their communications on constituent parts, rather than broadcast across the whole of the authority area.

Third, we should put the theme of fairness to the fore in our campaigns. That means boosting campaigns to enable people to claim benefit but also naming and shaming those who cheat the system. As we put out council tax bills, people want to know what they can get from the council, but also that people who cut corners will be censured. All this builds trust in public service.

Finally, councils need to be seen to be led by people who care for the views and needs of their residents. The job of council communication teams is to translate the hard decisions being taken into what they practically mean on the ground. If people are less clear that the state has an effective role, then councils will have to communicate even harder why they have a role at all.

That starts with building a strong and compelling corporate story. This Christmas, consider how your story on public service can reach out to people in 2012.

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

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