The challenges of overturning the traditional council PR model

Shaking up Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils' traditional PR model has been no easy job.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils: experiencing a change in approach to PR
Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils: experiencing a change in approach to PR

Professional PR people in Suffolk are usually too polite to question your sanity, but the hushed silence among the Babergh and Mid Suffolk district council communications teams said it all.

I was announcing proposals not only to give away day-to-day public relations responsibility to non-communications staff, but to fund a specialist resource for empowering communities we may not have traditionally had any relationship with to become better at communications too.

As I set out our councils' approach to fellow professionals across the county, even to me it had the potential to be the perfect reputational storm: more communities with a bigger voice and fewer specialist communications professionals to deal with the results.

So, why were we doing this?

Firstly: austerity.

In 2011, in response to the ongoing financial squeeze, Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils decided to pull together their staff into a single, smaller combined structure, with far fewer managers, to net a shed load of savings.

Secondly: transformation.

Integration on its own wouldn’t solve our funding gap. Neither would it do much on its own to deliver positive outcomes for our communities. We all had to do things differently, or to quote our mantra be 'Smaller, Smarter, Swifter'.

Guided by a number of organisational principles that looked to empower all council staff to make more decisions for themselves, to take risks and more naturally work flexibly with others, we decided this was a chance to have a go at redefining the traditional client-side PR model.

From this we proposed to:

  • Devolve day-to-day public relations responsibilities to 33 middle managers
  • Reposition the smaller specialist communications function (now known as Corporate Voice) as more strategic and advisory, with a direct delivery role in public affairs, lobbying and internal communications
  • Empower our communities, and especially our less engaged communities, by offering a specialist communications resource (now called Community Voice) to help them better shape our policies and priorities.

As we are about to go live with this new model, we can now reflect on what we did well and not so well during this pre-implementation period.

We were quite good at listening to the managers’ ideas about our initial proposals, but we could have worked harder on getting them to genuinely help shape them.

We won the intellectual argument with our media sector of local and regional press editors and senior journalists, but needed to do more to convince the patch reporters that the model wasn’t going to lead to missed deadlines, or worse – inaccuracies or misinformation.

We got buy-in from the councils' directors to bring in communications trainer Self Communications to do the heavy lifting in delivering core skills and confidence within just five months. The bespoke element of the resulting training, based on individual manager skills audits, is looking like an especially wise investment.

We still have some way to go in winning the hearts and minds of all our councillors as to the value and role of the Community Voice function in their wards. This will be a key future priority.

And our PR peer group seem a bit more interested, but still I worry that they’re not saying a lot.

Paul Simon is ‎corporate manager, communications, at Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils. He will be sharing updates on the progress of the communications shake-up over the coming months.

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