The democratic dimension

Good communications matters to councillors in local government. It is integral to them as leaders of place and champions for the communities they serve. In this section a broad range of leading members set out why effective communications is an essential part of a healthy democracy, the role it can play in helping councils meet their ambitions and the attributes they expect from their communications teams.

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Cllr William Nunn, Leader of Breckland Council

“I see my communications team as my eyes and ears – both internally and externally. My head of communications and my chief executive are the two most pivotal people in the organisation. We can come up with the ideas and are doing good things, but we need to be able to explain them in a way that takes people with us. 

“I expect my communications team to be fleet of foot and confident enough to challenge me. There’s no point someone saying to me that they thought something was going to go wrong but didn’t say so at the time. They need to be trusted confidants.

“We use communications as a filter – they watch for the banana skins and make the important calls. They future proof us by ensuring we keep in touch with all the modern forms of communication and make sure we are getting our messages out in the most appropriate way.

“Trust is very important. I trust my communications team to come up with ideas that I wouldn’t think of, or didn’t necessarily consider to be important. Our staff satisfaction levels have gone up in the last year predominantly because our communications team has made such an effort to keep people informed.”

Cllr Michael Payne, Deputy Leader of Gedling Borough Council and Deputy Leader of the LGA Labour Group

“When our administration took office one of the first decisions we took was to make communications the specific responsibility of a cabinet member. This demonstrated to officers and members the importance we attached to it.

“We are now a ‘go to’ council for the local and regional media. We don’t do ‘no comment’, we always put somebody forward. This is important – our residents want to see human beings responding to issues, concerns and questions on their behalf.

“I am very much of the view that we are not the stewards of the council or the town hall – we are the leaders of place. If we are going to do that, we have to have a good, effective communications outfit and to listen to our partners, businesses and residents in an appropriate way.

“Communications cannot be one way and just broadcast – you have to listen. We have worked hard to create a sense that we are much more accessible and open.

“The communications element of a council needs to be plugged in and respected at most senior level of the organisation. Our communications team is small, but it punches above its weight and that is demonstrated by how it has access to anyone it needs – nobody has to go through a chain of command or any bureaucracy.

“Communications is crucial to what we do. We set out our big strategic issues over the course of the year and make sure we are putting the resources in to communicate them.”

Dave Hodgson, Elected Mayor of Bedford Borough Council

 “There is no point being elected if you don’t go beyond that and engage people in what the council is doing and trying to achieve.

 “Communications keeps people informed about the enjoyable things we do like community events, but it is also crucial in times of emergency. Our residents rely on the council’s social media channels to keep them informed when there is bad weather.

 “Good communications also helps us do important work like recruiting local foster carers, which ensures children can remain near their support networks and don’t need to go to other agencies. Our jobs hub is helping to reach people as young as 13 and as old as 83.

 “Some of the digital communications I see from businesses are so advanced they are quite scary. We need to strive to reach the same standards in important areas like health and education, but that is difficult with reduced budgets.

 “I rely on my own email distribution lists as well as social media, and this is a vital way of reaching different parts of the community. But I would encourage every leader or elected mayor to look at all the channels available and think ‘if I do all of them, can I do all of them well?’

“You do need to have a thick skin and realise you can’t respond to every single comment. The greatest skill is to listen to what people say, take it on board but not to let it affect you personally.”

Cllr Marianne Overton, Leader of the LGA Independent Group and member of Lincolnshire County Council and North Kesteven District Council and leader of the LGA Independent group

 “It is important to explain to the public some of the difficult decisions councils have to take, as well as engaging them in order to get the best decisions, the best performance and the best services.

 “I believe all councillors should be engaged with their communications teams – not just the few in administration. Together we represent all sections of our communities and we can all be champions for the council. If you involve backbench or opposition members and give them a job to do for the good of our communities, they will generally get on and do it well, just like anybody else.

 “Independent councillors do not see themselves as the opposition, we are leaders and advocates for our local areas. I would like to see more ward members included in council communications. It can irritate people if they perceive council communications to be too party political.

 “I use a range of different communications to reach people, including Twitter and Facebook. But it would be a big mistake for anyone to think ‘I’ve got X number of followers and so I don’t need to worry about leaflets or face-to-face’. Sometimes direct communication is needed, and can avert a social media spat, for example. I would miss out on a lot of people if I didn't also do some of the more traditional things such as knocking on doors and going to coffee mornings.”

Cllr Kevin Bentley, Deputy Leader of Essex County Council

 “Councillors try their hardest to make the best policies for our communities. If we cannot then explain what we are doing, then we have totally failed. The brightest ideas are pointless without a communications plan to ensure they are understood.

“If we are taking controversial decisions, communications advice is essential at an early stage. Otherwise people will not understand why we are taking them. That is why in any meeting I attend, a communications presence is so important.

“One of the first rules of communications is that you cannot say something once. You have to keep repeating a message at least eight times until it has got through. We might be getting bored of it, but the public have only just started hearing what we are saying.

“Simply issuing a news release is probably the least effective way of communicating. It is important to think beyond these tactics, embrace new technology and innovate through methods such as short films.

“The traditional media has a role to play, we should never forget that. Local TV, newspapers and radio still matter. But social media and other platforms have given us so many more opportunities to get the facts out there. If we are not prepared to that, it creates a vacuum which opposing voices will fill.”

Cllr Sharon Taylor OBE, Leader of Stevenage Borough Council

“Smaller organisations, like district councils, can sometimes worry about how to justify spending money on communications but I believe it is essential for helping us to meet our objectives. Communications is vital for marketing our organisation and our place, so that our residents and stakeholders understand our vision, see what our area has to offer and are clear on what we are doing to support them.

"It is also essential for helping us to respond quickly to inaccuracies, promote positive news and make sure that residents understand how the council is implementing their priorities  – while always respecting the important line between party political and council messages.

“Resident communication preferences are always changing and it’s important to members that our communication team is able to respond to this, and share their knowledge, data and insight with us. We also value their creativity when it comes to helping us reach people who might not engage with traditional consultations or channels.

"In my council the relationship between communications, members and our engagement team is particularly strong and something we have worked hard to develop.

“In a small organisations with limited resources it’s important for communicators to be able to work flexibly and have a range of professional skills rather than necessarily being just marketing or PR experts. It’s also important for our teams to involve members in the planning of communications campaigns, have good political nous, an ability to see the bigger picture and understand how national issues reflect or impact on local decisions.

"These skills can really help councils amplify their messages, be more proactive and work more strategically.”