London Borough of Hackney – embedding diversity and equality in local government communications

Local government communications has a diversity problem. According to the LGA’s 2018 Heads of Communications survey, 91 per cent of council communications leaders are white British and just 3 per cent are from a non-white ethnic minority background. For us, as council communications teams, we need to reflect the communities we serve. Polly Cziok, Director of Communications, Culture and Engagement at London Borough of Hackney explains why and how they’ve put diversity and equality at the heart of everything they do.

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In Hackney, equalities and diversity are at the heart of our communications practice. Partly that’s because of the kind of place Hackney is; one of the country’s most genuinely diverse local authority areas, where communities from all over the world have made their home. Partly it’s about the core values of our organisation and our political administration. But also it’s about being an ambitious, high-performing team and wanting to achieve the very best service for our residents by making sure that we can truly understand and reflect their needs.

Connecting with communities means taking a broader view of communications, beyond the traditional focus on channels, reputation management, and behaviour change. The key metric for council communicators has always been ‘how well informed do our residents feel?’. That’s still incredibly important, but in Hackney, of equal or even greater importance is ‘do our residents trust us?’. 74 per cent of Hackney people said yes to this in our 2018 Ipsos MORI research. That’s nearly 20 per cent higher than the LGA’s national average.  

Building trust means listening to and engaging with communities. To do this in an authentic way, it’s vital to build teams that reflect the communities we serve. Only by having a genuine diversity of perspective within teams can we build communication and engagement strategies that resonate.

In Hackney, we manage communications, cultural programming, and engagement as a single division within the Chief Executive’s Directorate, and the lines between these disciplines are ever more fluid.  A good case study of how this works in practice was our Windrush Generations programme in which we used the celebration and commemoration of Hackney’s Windrush generation to forge a new relationship with Black British older people, a traditionally hard to reach group, as well as making new connections with their families. 

Windrush Generations was an events programme, a community involvement project, a cultural celebration involving inter-generational baking, cricket, dominos, music and dance, a heritage and archive project, and through all of that, a way of connecting often isolated older people with each other and with council services. Whilst it was a whole team effort, it was led by staff members, and Councillors, who are Windrush descendants, giving the whole programme a passion, and authenticity that it would not otherwise have had, and creating a powerful learning experience for the rest of us.

Achieving diversity within a communications team isn’t easy.  BAME people are hugely underrepresented in the profession as a whole, which is starkly illustrated by the fact that 91 per cent of council communications chiefs are white British. Of course, diversity isn’t just about race, and it’s not just relevant to inner city places like Hackney, which has long been defined by its ‘global village’ status.  Diversity is about gender, sexuality, disability, and it’s about education and class; the communications profession as a whole is 31 per cent privately educated, against a population level figure of 7.5 per cent.  In towns, cities and districts across the country where we have heard so much about the forgotten voices of traditionally working class communities, council communications teams should be able to say that they include and reflect those communities, and can connect with them in an authentic way. 

So how can we build diversity into our teams? Too often, managers will shrug their shoulders and say ‘well I can’t give jobs to people who don’t apply for them.’  There are practical measures we can take, starting with where we advertise roles. Creative use of social media, and using organisations such as the Taylor Bennett Foundation to promote roles will open access to a far more diverse talent pool than the standard ‘stick it on the Guardian website and hope for the best’ approach.  Also look at your job specs. Look at those ‘essential criteria’.  Are you asking for a degree or a certain level of experience when those things aren’t really necessary? Do you have genuinely entry level opportunities or are you setting the bar intimidatingly high? Are you using apprenticeships to attract and develop young talent from across your communities? 

In Hackney we have developed an inclusive leadership strategy for the whole organisation. This includes the introduction of inclusive recruitment practices such as blind applications and we’re beginning a radical rethink of how we describe and promote our roles. We can all try to practice inclusive leadership, whether we are Directors, team managers or individual practitioners. This can mean anything from making sure you check your own unconscious bias, to making sure your team is an inclusive place, where diversity is genuinely valued.  Councils have a duty to promote fairness and equality, as employers and service providers in communications this work is a professional necessity if we are to gain and hold the trust of our communities.

Want to know more about Hackney’s work on diversity and equality?

Get in touch with Polly Cziok, Director of Communications, Culture, and Engagement, London Borough of Hackney