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The view from the top

Of this we can all agree: if we are to address the economic, social and political issues of our areas – and the crisis in public funding of vital services - then local government has to transform itself. And it can’t do this without getting the communications right. Paul Masterman, LGA Associate, explains.

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In that sense strategic communications must be a fit subject for a chief executive’s or senior manager’s in-tray and one of their organisation’s most important issues, and this has to go far beyond worrying over the intro to a media release or the latest tweet about potholes.

That is why this online resource for senior local government leaders is so important and why in preparing the content we wanted to talk to senior managers across the country about their key issues and priorities – and their predictions for the future.

How will strategic communications help deliver the council of the future? What are the main elements of the new strategic communications mix? And what advice, support and thinking will councils need in the future from their professional communicators?

The time for change is now

All colleagues we talked with agreed with John Maynard Keynes: when the facts change, you need to change your mind. 

The transformation of technology, the media, the way people live their lives and the political and social climate demands that we move away from the traditional model of doing communications. This was characterised bluntly by one chief executive as the hard-bitten, ex-journalist turned media manager who knew how to manage the media, was good in a crisis and could get the council out of its reputational holes.

That’s not to say that, to quote one senior manager, we had to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Communications would always have the basic but important job of helping the organisation craft its vision, communicate objectives and priorities and explain to residents and partners what the local council stands for – and how to hold it to account when it does not deliver.

Six major themes emerged as our panel of senior managers looked into the future:

  1. Our uniquely centralised but paradoxically fragmented system of local government gives a challenge to individual councils and the sector in terms of how it gains voice to influence and fight its corner while keeping a focus on the needs of its local areas. This is tough and will get tougher at a time when the country and the world is dominated by everything from Brexit to migration, and nativism to the alienation of young people from public institutions. Who will speak for us and is anybody listening?

  2. One answer is strategically using all of the assets and collateral of a place - not just of the public and private sectors, but the community, voluntary and hybrid sectors - to craft and deliver a much stronger and more confident story of the place. As one chief executive put it, this involves being much more imaginative about harnessing the influence of the “unusual suspects” such as youth bloggers and YouTubers. The place shaping of Michael Lyons’ original report is still relevant and we still haven’t got it right.

  3. Doing more for less is no longer the mantra, even if it ever was or should have been. But doing better for less and in collaboration with others is one of the biggest strategic communications challenges faced by local authorities. Intervening earlier to change behaviour and using actions to manage demand on ever-squeezed services is about a much more sophisticated approach to campaigning that uses behavioural economics and psychology to get people to live different and better lives. But this will demand a far more sophisticated use of insight to understand our communities and a much cleverer analysis of Big Data to shape more responsive policy.

  4. The transformation we all seek will not be delivered without the involvement of, and ideas from, staff. Councils need to move away from the traditional approach of top down, heavily corporate internal PR to a more sophisticated strategy that properly engages staff and creates a climate in which they can do their best work and contribute informed thinking. Any barriers between HR, OD and comms need to be torn down. One council has used a business marketing approach to develop a culture of customer-focused, evidence-led and bold internal (and external) communications to change the way they engage colleagues as well as residents.

  5. Digital in general and social media in particular, will continue to change the weather for councils and provide an opportunity that not all authorities have yet grasped to change the relationship and conversation with local people. It is a chance to have some human engagement with residents unmediated by the traditional press or broadcasters. But the speed, intensity of debate and 24-hour access of social media brings risks to organisations that are slow to change and respond, are not prepared to be honest and open and are too reliant on council-speak to provide the informal, human and humorous response that people demand in the modern age. Councils now have to be “network navigators” (in the words of one chief) and become the one, trusted source of truth in a world of fake news.

  6. All this means that professional communications teams need to adapt or, well, die. The modern professional should have a strategic brain, an ability to look ahead and spot trends, the craft to tell and share stories, the expertise to create and sustain brands – and, yes, the skills to respond brilliantly in a crisis when the chips are down and the old media and new social media citizens are knocking on the door. This demands enhancing and integrating the skills of communicators across the full mix of public relations, marketing and public affairs. This significant organisational development, skills and team development challenge is perhaps the biggest one facing communications teams within local government today.

All these themes and more are developed further in this resource by some of the UK’s top thinkers in communications, engagement and digital strategy.