Council comms must change to survive, experts warn

Comms teams must adapt to modern ways of working or die, according to a new 'comms bible' produced for council chiefs by the Local Government Association, PRCA, LG Comms and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.

(L-R) Simon Enright, Professor Anne Gregory and David Holdstock contributed to the FutureComms report
(L-R) Simon Enright, Professor Anne Gregory and David Holdstock contributed to the FutureComms report

The online #FutureComms resource, launched last week, draws on the views of 16 experts in areas ranging from digital to behaviour change, and employee engagement to place marketing. It aims to communicate the importance of strategic communications to council bosses.

Simon Enright, director of communications, NHS England; Anne Gregory, professor of corporate communication at the University of Huddersfield; David Holdstock, director of comms at the LGA; Francis Ingham, PRCA director-general; and Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, are among the individuals who have contributed to the resource.

More than 30 case studies have been included to illustrate best practice, and a 10-strong panel of senior council leaders, including the chief executives of six councils in England, has also had input into the materials.

Writing in the foreword to #FutureComms, LGA chairman Lord Porter said: "Good communications helps us to deliver the everyday services that people need and value – from telling people about bin collections to letting parents know their child has a place at school."

He added: "But it also plays an increasingly crucial role in transforming and saving lives. Put simply, we can’t… reach people to lead healthier lifestyles, or get vital information out in times of crisis, without an effective communications function."

And Jo Miller, chief executive of Doncaster Council and president of SOLACE, commented: "Ultimately, we are about our connections with the people we serve, so the value of good communication must be embedded in our DNA."

Changes in technology, the media landscape, the way in which people live and the political and social climate demand that "we move away from the traditional model of doing communication", according to Paul Masterman, LGA associate.

Writing in a section summarising the views of a number of council leaders who took part in the creation of the #FutureComms resource, he said: "Doing better for less and in collaboration with others is one of the biggest strategic communications challenges faced by local authorities."

This, Masterman said, requires a "much more sophisticated approach to campaigning".

In addition, councils need to evolve from the "traditional approach of top down, heavily corporate internal PR to a more sophisticated strategy that properly engages staff and creates a climate in which they can do their best work and contribute informed thinking."

The demands of communicating in today’s environment, including dealing with the opportunities and threats presented by social media and tackling fake news, means that "professional communications teams need to adapt or, well, die," he warned.

Masterman said: "The modern professional should have a strategic brain, an ability to look ahead and spot trends, the craft to tell and share stories, the expertise to create and sustain brands – and, yes, the skills to respond brilliantly in a crisis when the chips are down and the old media and new social media citizens are knocking on the door."

He added: "This demands enhancing and integrating the skills of communicators across the full mix of public relations, marketing and public affairs. This significant organisational development, skills and team development challenge is perhaps the biggest one facing communications teams within local government."


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