COVID-19 communications: place leadership

Recovery and renewal needs place-led leadership and collaborative action. Here, John Till from place marketing company thinkingplace, shows how councils can make their place the hero.

We are still gripped by the most significant crisis many of us have ever experienced and it is being played out in all places across the UK irrespective of size, poverty or affluence, rural or urban, connected or isolated; it is touching us all. Whilst the threat is still potent, communities are starting to look to the future because there is a need to balance living alongside the virus with rebuilding lives, businesses and the fabric of our society. But what does this mean; are we desperate to return to something akin to a few months ago, or do we need to think differently about what our places are for, how they function and what’s important in this process? And critically; how do we help our communities find some hope?

COVID-19 has meant that for virtually everyone, their place has become critically important; the space they occupy, where they have sought fresh air and open space, the places they have exercised, where they have shopped etc. Lockdown has also meant there has been time to reflect on the place people live and that will no doubt have been a positive experience for some and a very negative one for others. In fact, the LGA’s most recent resident satisfaction survey revealed that resident satisfaction with their local area as a place to live is now at a record high. This shows the huge opportunity there is for councils to build on.

We will all have learnt about our place, discovered walks and cycleways we never knew existed, rediscovered hidden gems we’ve forgotten about, looked at grotty areas we wish could be improved and appreciated our location for better or worse. As we look to the future there has never been a more appropriate and important time to work with stakeholders to make their place the hero.

Place shaping

What do people want their place to be? What things do they value in it? What’s missing? Where will people work and what will they do? How can the economy be rebuilt? Given the focus people have had on their place and their experiences it’s highly likely their place priorities will have changed.

They are also much more likely to be connected to their city, town or village or want to be; they want to know and help create the stories of their place. There has been an awareness of everything local from high streets to open spaces, as everyone’s world became a much smaller place. We have all been reminded of what makes our place special; the park we used to just drive past, walks we can do from home, the local shops we want to keep but hardly visit; our appreciation of little things has become massive.

Hence, this is the ideal time to bring stakeholders together to determine their forward-looking place story that reflects the ambition and assets of the location, shines a light on what is possible and sets out what really matters. Engaging stakeholders in this type of exercise can be done remotely and to some extent this is even more effective, the added benefit is this also creates confidence and provides a much needed future thinking based activity. The insights from this sort of work can also be fed into reset and recovery programmes giving valuable ‘on the ground’ perspectives.

This will help a place work out what it’s got going for it, the assets it can exploit as working with what you have will be part of the new mantra. Confidence will come from this collaborative approach as it will celebrate all that’s good about local, set out a direction of travel and bring people together not in crisis but in consideration of what’s possible if everyone pulls together. Hampshire County Council have facilitated the development of a forward looking narrative for Hampshire developed in collaboration with hundreds of stakeholders. This will form a key part of their economic recovery plan in highlighting the assets and opportunities of the county and bringing people and organisations together to get the message out and amplify confidence about the place’s future.

Place leadership

During the crisis stages of the pandemic leaders naturally emerged, not for personal gain, not for kudos, nobody voted for them; they stepped forward to help their place and the people in it. More often than not they weren’t the usual suspects, they weren’t from the expected organisations. Every city, town and village is going to need this wider place leadership as it can’t just be left to local authorities. Creating the place story is the perfect opportunity to find and nurture leaders from all walks of life through the required engagement process. This can lead to the creation of Place Boards or similar place leadership groups who can be guardians of the place story, ultimate champions of the place, the key partners for the Local Authority; they can galvanise action and amplify confidence. In Harrogate through their work to develop a place narrative they have formed a Place Leadership Group to act as guardians of their brand and story and the ultimate champions of the place. This group has been used as a sounding board and advisor throughout the pandemic by the council and provided views on the recovery plan; a true place led response.

There is no doubt that out of COVID-19 crisis came collaboration; people and organisations came together immediately, agendas put to one side, disagreements forgotten, with a focus on solutions not problems and place was the catalyst and glue. The secret now is to capture that spirit and create active collaborators who will come together, get behind the place and enable it to do things differently as part of reset and recovery. As part of creating a new road map for the place set up a place ambassadors programme to get businesses and other organisations to be your sales force and hear what’s going on in the place so they can communicate this through their network and contacts. This produces a buzz about the place, raises confidence and demonstrates some symbols of hope that people can hang onto.

What is going to matter most to people is job creation and retention and if we are going to rebuild the economies of our places these are the building blocks that will help achieve this.