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Strategic communications in local government – the challenges and opportunities

Strategic communications is critical to local government’s future success and sustainability.  However, for it to play a key role in helping to transform our relationship with our residents, it needs buy-in from councils’ political and managerial leadership. Simon Jones, Chairman of LGComms, and David Holdstock, Director of Communications at the LGA, explain:

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Speak to any chief executive about key issues facing local government and you will invariably get one of five responses:  managing demand, investment and growth, business transformation, commercialisation and forging a different relationship with communities.

Consider these challenges carefully and you realise that strategic communications lies at the heart of every single one of them.

Building trust and confidence, and through that, strengthening relationships with citizens, stakeholders and staff, should be the starting point for any successful organisation. To succeed it requires recognition of the importance of strong strategic communications to act as a both a trusted advisor, navigator and leader.

Local councils that do not adequately recognise the importance of strategic communications in terms of resources, skills and its place in the structure, are likely to be the ones that struggle the most to connect with their residents, staff and stakeholders.

The LGA’s annual heads of communications survey shows that resources are constrained and workloads are growing, which underlines the need for there to be an unrelenting focus on priorities. Communications teams need to ensure their activities are underpinned by a clear strategy – linked to the organisation’s priorities and with a rigorous system of evaluation.

The LGA has carried out more than 50 communications peer reviews and health checks between 2016 and 2018 – making more than 500 separate recommendations to councils as a result.

Although the reviews were tailored to the individual needs of each organisation, analysis of these recommendations shows that there were some common themes – a lack of strategy, an absence of corporate narrative and an under-developed place brand.

Communications is a shared responsibility, and a council needs a compelling story which articulates its purpose. Peer reviews have consistently highlighted the need to develop a corporate narrative, and the heads of communications survey showed that 40 per cent of respondent authorities did not have one.

The area which has resulted in the most recommendations relates to the role of the leading communications professional in a council. The peer reviews have regularly found that this important post is often not positioned at a sufficiently senior level in the organisation and not plugged into its leadership – which often results in a disconnect between communications activity and the organisation’s strategic priorities.

However, this place in the organisation is not a right and needs to be earned.  We have seen many examples of communicators not having regular access to their leader, chief executive and key decision making forums.

Much of the time the problem is less about an individual and much more about whether the right conditions are in place for them to succeed. Are they correctly positioned in the structure, have they developed the right relationships, do they have access to key meetings and is the importance of their work valued?

Often, the answer is no and part of the reason for that is not being able to demonstrate to an organisation’s political and managerial leadership the value of strategic communications to help deliver corporate priorities. 

This resource sets out what leaders and chief executives should expect from a communications team that delivers a strategic function.

The power of strategy

Internal communications is the area where the second highest number of recommendations have been made. This reflects the importance, particularly in times of significant change, of ensuring that a council’s workforce is kept well informed, involved and equipped to be advocates for the organisation. It also reflects how responsibility for internal communications can often be fragmented and lacking strategic oversight.

The development of both a corporate communications strategy and an annual campaign plan have been regularly highlighted. This is important, as communications without strategy does not work. The absence of an annual campaign plan – with agreed budgets – also risks communications activity being dictated by the parts of the organisation able to ‘shout the loudest’ or have the ability to pay. In short, there is not necessarily a clear link between the work being carried out by the communications function and organisational priorities.

Reviewing communications activity and spend across the whole authority has been frequently recommended. Communications activity is sometimes carried out in different parts of the organisation away from the corporate centre or is commissioned directly by individual departments. Although there can be a case for this approach, it often results in a lack of oversight – of both delivering strategic communications and communications spending.

The need to ensure communications is based on effective insight and a good understanding of the local population is something we continue to stress. It is also important this activity is then rigorously evaluated. As communicators, we cannot stress the value of our work without the evidence. 

Member communications and the role of councillors more broadly has been regularly highlighted. All councils need to ensure there is an effective information flow which ensures they can be effective in their roles, and act as ambassadors for the council.

The importance of councils maintaining and developing effective relationships with their partners is, of course, an increasingly important area. This also relates to the place shaping agenda, which in the context of Brexit and the need to encourage inward investment to boost local economies, has become a major priority for many authorities.

All council communications teams need to be future proofed and equipped with the full suite of skills they need in order to be effective and to be able to adapt to the changing landscape.

We need to evolve as the landscape around us changes, harnessing the power of data, insight, digital and technology and moving from our historic role of ‘broadcaster’ to relationship-builder and from a service that has often been seen as a fixer to one that should pre-empt problems and help design solutions.

This modern communications guide contains the latest thinking and predictions – as well as some plain speaking – from some of the best people in their field, with experience of strategic communications in the public, private and charity sectors.

It is designed to act both as a primer and diagnostic tool for politicians, senior officers and professional communicators to test, interrogate and develop their own effectiveness.

Strategic communications has a key role to play at the heart of public service but it has to be fit for the 21st century and be able to prove its value to both our political and managerial leaders. 

Further reading

Find out more about LGcommunications

Find out more information about the LGA’s communications support