Public Sector: What do you want to be famous for?

The local elections last week should give pause for thought to all communications professionals in both local and national political outfits.

As a national referendum on Gordon Brown, the results from the polls didn't just show mid-term blues, they showed the Labour Party being kicked black and blue. The voters gave a resounding thumbs-down to the failure of the party to communicate a narrative as to why they should vote for it.

Yet the local elections are also just that - local. While pretty much all the talk in the papers has been about the way in which the voters did not appreciate the New Labour message, there were hints that people vote on local issues as well as national ones. From Slough to Liverpool and Purbeck to Bolton, there were areas that bucked national trends.

While the national focus for political parties is to keep a constant stream of messages coming out from their headquarters to the lobby journalists, local political organisations have to be more sophisticated in how they communicate their messages.

Using the Experian programme Mosaic, parties can identify who people are street-by-street and tailor-make what they say to their relevant audience. It is not a new technique. Private sector marketing companies have not only been using this for years, but have now moved on to use even more sophisticated technology to get their brands across to the punter.

Taking a step back from last week, the question is what can public sector PR professionals learn from all this? The answer lies in understanding who the audience is, what channels of communication are needed to make sure the messages reach it and get the messages right for it.

Most importantly, getting the narrative right is critical for ensuring people know what you are for. Telling people about what the organisation does is one thing - finding the one thing for which your organisation wants to be famous is even more important.

Whether it is being the greenest, cheapest, hippest, cleanest or healthiest doesn't really matter but, unless you have that one thing, the rest of the work that is put in means very little. Brown found that out to his cost last week.

Richard Stokoe is head of news at the Local Government Association

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