Normal is over and trust is paramount: the year ahead in public sector comms

I approach this article with a slight sense of nervousness because, given the year we have just had, making predictions for 2021 can seem a bit foolhardy.

Resilience in public sector comms is high, which will serve it well in 2021, predicts Ranjeet Kaile
Resilience in public sector comms is high, which will serve it well in 2021, predicts Ranjeet Kaile

There are, of course, some things which are more guaranteed than others. We know that system-wide partnership working will grow stronger across organisational boundaries as people work to find solutions for shared problems.

Sadly, we also understand that the pandemic and its impact will continue to be felt for years to come.

But not everything is bad news. So let our foray into the future commence with the top five predictions for 2021 in public sector communications.

1. No more back to normal

In 2020, public sector comms teams demonstrated their value in bucketloads, managing the daily freight train of Coronavirus pressure with the canny nimbleness of Bill Bailey on Strictly. We will start to see a steady shift towards strategic communications at the top table now that the impact (and risks) are more evident. Teams will move to semi-permanent remote working with the opportunity to recruit from further afield now that location becomes less important. We will see more movement across public sector roles as people want to be closer to the frontline. Internal communications and staff engagement will take on a life of their own to keep a disparate workforce engaged.

2. Marathons and sprints

The pandemic challenges will continue well into 2021. Comms teams have been running this marathon for a long time now, and fatigue (mental and physical) is a real risk if people aren't able to rest, connect and recharge. Remote working has its advantages, but when you're not able to let off steam with colleagues or share ideas, there can be a creative loss and a more profound psychological impact. We will see teams starting to adapt and take a much more protected and innovative approach to team-building, creating important moments of regular networking and sharing. Teams will seek to align themselves much more tightly to organisational priorities than ever before to allow them the safety of not getting dragged into every project that 'needs some comms'.

3. Trust, a fresh new hope

A hugely important battleground for 2021. There will be greater trust in science as people prepare to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The Government will take a more directive approach with social media giants on tackling fake news, given what's at stake. We will see greater use of behavioural science with hyper-local messaging. Scepticism, conspiracy theories and information overload will continue being the enemy of comms teams across the country.

4. Austerity strikes back

Unfortunately, we haven't seen the back of the dark days of austerity. Given that we are in the worst recession since WW2, we will once again experience a tightening of our collective belts as the country struggles to deal with the double-pronged economic challenges that Brexit and Coronavirus have dealt us. The good news is that public sector communications are about as resilient as they come. We will find new and innovative ways of delivering services. The voluntary and community sector will play an even more critical role in helping to build legitimacy with diverse groups.

5. The power of anchor institutions

As communities struggle with the impact of COVID-19, they will look to trusted institutions for support. The public sector will turbo charge the work they do to support local communities beyond the traditional. People will look to them for employment, training and volunteering opportunities in the masses. Voluntary and community sector organisations will seek to work much more closely in partnership on shared objectives. Corporate buying power will be focused locally to support small and medium-sized businesses. Community engagement to tackle social isolation and loneliness will see its entry into the organisations' strategy. Comms teams will play a central role in this, acting as the glue that binds things together.

Ranjeet Kaile is director of comms, stakeholder engagement and public affairs at South West London and St. George’s Mental Health NHS Trust

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