Crucible of COVID-19 elevates council comms to record importance, survey says

The coronavirus pandemic has propelled local authority comms to the top of organisations, according to new research from LGcomms, while those working for councils say they have taken on the equivalent of a new job during the hardest 12 months of their careers.

Local authorities have had to step up their comms efforts but have proved their metal in the pandemic, the survey says
Local authorities have had to step up their comms efforts but have proved their metal in the pandemic, the survey says

Now in its seventh year, the latest annual survey of public sector comms professionals by LGcomms and Panacea Software reveals that 78 per cent believe that senior leaders see communications as a front-line service with a permanent seat at the top table. 

This reflects the “life-saving importance of clear, accurate community advice and guidance”, the report states. 

A record high of nine out of 10 respondents (87 per cent) say the status of communications in their organisation was higher now than it has ever been. This is a marked increase from the 61 per cent in last year’s survey who stated that comms is recognised as highly important to their organisation.

Relentless demands to communicate continually evolving information about COVID-19 to local communities “piled unprecedented pressure on communications professionals working in local government and emergency services in 2020”.

More than 170 respondents working in local government or the emergency services responded to the survey, which was carried out from December 2020 to January 2021.

Challenges

Comms teams are divided in terms of how much time they give to the key part of their job. Just 32 per cent spend at least 70 per cent of their time each week on planned work to fulfil core priorities, while 35 per cent spend this amount of time on administration and meetings.

Only half (52 per cent) of teams have been working to a clear comms strategy during the past year.

And their job has not been helped by the performance of central government comms. 

More than half of respondents rate the timeliness (54 per cent) and clarity (52 per cent) of comms directed at their organisations about COVID-19 guidelines as poor, while more than one in four (28 per cent) describe the effectiveness of the Government’s pandemic comms to the general public as poor.

The past 12 months have been the most demanding of their career for 80 per cent of the respondents, who have found it a “challenge” to maintain a work-life balance. And the vast majority (89 per cent) report that COVID-19 comms have accounted for more than half their team’s workload.

As one respondent put it: “Each of us has taken on the equivalent of an additional job this year and somehow found the time to do it.”

'Inefficient systems'

Although nine out of 10 (91 per cent) have been able to work productively from home, more than half (57 per cent) complain that “inefficient systems” have made their job harder than it should be – a significant rise from the 39 per cent saying this last year.

Half (48 per cent) cite “cost-cutting measures” as having made their jobs more difficult. Three-quarters (73 per cent) fear future budget cuts are likely to affect their ability to “deliver a high-quality service” – a big jump from the 50 per cent who held this view in last year’s survey.

Not surprisingly, given the impact of the pandemic, more than half (56 per cent) have  experienced a high volume of unplanned and urgent work. And less than half (44 per cent) think their team has had enough time to do its work – although this is a significant rise from the 28 per cent who said this in 2019.  

Less than half (45 per cent) of the respondents report that job satisfaction and morale in their team is high, down from 56 per cent in last year’s survey.

Plans

When it comes to the top priorities for comms teams over the next year, corporate or strategic planning comes out on top, cited by 62 per cent. It is followed by increasing the use of digital, online or social media (49 per cent); more efficient ways of working (48 per cent); and performance monitoring and improvement (38 per cent).

Just two per cent of respondents anticipate their team returning to the office on a full-time basis once the pandemic is over, with 92 per cent predicting a mix of home and office-based working.

Response

Commenting on the findings, Panacea Software managing drector Rachel Wynne said: “Council communicators have been tested this year and have done an exceptional job in very difficult circumstances.”

She added: “A clear conclusion from the experiences of 2020 is that communicators are going to have to exist in a ‘more for less’ environment. Resource challenges, the need for rapid response and the adjustment to new ways of working created a series of challenges that have already reshaped the communications function and will continue to do so in the years ahead.” 



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