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Leadership: The communicating council in a time of upheaval

Well planned and executed communication programmes are essential to align residents and other important stakeholders with your vision and strategic objectives. Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, Professors of Corporate Communications at the University of Huddersfield, explain.

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Key points

  • Good communication teams should help the organisation to ‘listen’ as well as ‘speak’.
  • To influence and agree common goals requires effective communication by leaders throughout the organisation.
  • Communication is a crucial core competence for all organisations, as they engage directly with an ever-expanding set of empowered stakeholders.

Communication and your license to operate

The contemporary demands placed on local government leaders are immense. These include balancing the demands of different groups, managing their often conflicting expectations and coping with a raft of accountabilities. This context is made more complex given the obligations placed on local authorities extend beyond being efficient, effective and legally compliant.

Achieving the status of a widely admired council requires behaving in a way that residents, employees, central government, the media and other important stakeholders regard as fair and appropriate.

The challenges generated by these accountabilities and expectations underpin why having a team of effective professional communicators is vital to a local council and its senior leaders.

The strategic purpose of communication is to help the local authority maintain its license to operate. This idea is based on the insight that without the support of key stakeholders a council cannot function effectively.

Well planned and executed communication programmes are therefore essential to align others with the organisation’s vision and strategic objectives. This process not only involves informing stakeholders, but requires actively generating support for key objectives and influencing behaviour where appropriate.

Are you listening?

Good communication teams should also help the organisation to ‘listen’ as well as ‘speak’. A council cannot begin to align its priorities with others unless it understands where they stand on relevant issues. The need to gather and analyse the views of different stakeholders to inform decision making at all levels of the council is the reason why communication departments are adept at research, connected and constantly scanning the external environment for issues which might impact on the organisation.

The pace of change across society means the contextual intelligence provided by communication teams is more important than ever to council leaders and chief executives.

The stakeholder environment is dynamic and in a permanent state of flux. The views of individuals and groups can change quickly, so having a team of people attuned and able to respond to these shifts is essential (for more on this see chapter on Community engagement.

Risk management

Scanning for issues further highlights the crucial role that communicators play in risk management. Providing early warning of issues as they arise and recommending strategies for action are part and parcel of the communicator’s job description.

Furthermore, communication professionals, in addition to council leaders and chief executives, often find themselves as the public face of the organisation during times in which competing issues and priorities collide. 

In this environment communication advisors ensure that senior managers are equipped to be skilled communicators themselves and understand their role in maintaining supportive stakeholder networks.

Leadership as communication

The last point supports the view that communication essentially lies at the core of effective leadership practice, underlining its enduring importance to council leaders and chief executives on an individual as well as an organisational level.

Leaders seek to influence other people to achieve a common goal. To influence and agree common goals requires effective communication by leaders throughout the organisation. This is why communication is widely regarded as the most important attribute of a leader, particularly during the sort of change and upheaval which continues to characterise life in local government. In this regard, leadership and communication can both be viewed as strategic processes working within, as well as across, the council’s functions and boundaries enabling it to operate effectively.

Despite communication being regarded as a key competence for leaders, most politicians and senior professionals receive little formal training for the cut and thrust of the media and wider stakeholder universe.

Not surprisingly, council leaders and chief executives look to their communication advisors for guidance in this area. This support is becoming increasingly important as we consider how social media has created an additional layer of complexity which can ratchet up a leader’s sense of exposure.

Leaders in local government are no longer just called to account by journalists working for newspapers, radio and television, but by a bewildering range of groups and individuals empowered by new, interactive forms of communication. 

A strategic asset

Communication is progressively becoming a crucial core competence for organisations, whether in the public or private sector, as they interact more closely and directly with an ever-expanding set of empowered stakeholders.

Councils will always have a relationship, a responsibility and an accountability to the communities they serve, as well as to society as a whole. If anything, these obligations will increase. Communication can help to determine the purpose and role of the organisation in society.

Council leaders and chief executives will always have to take decisions for the organisation as a whole and these decisions need to be enlightened though the intelligence that the communication team can bring.

Councils will also always have dependencies, a value chain of groups and organisations with whom they have close relationships. Wherever there are relationships of this type there will be a role for communicators to protect and enhance them in support of organisational objectives.

Councils, like all other organisations have to earn and preserve their ‘licence to operate’ from those they seek to serve and with whom they wish to develop partnerships. This is achieved through honest and productive communication, followed up by actions that are in line with the social contract that is developed through the understanding that communication brings.

These are some of the reasons why a local council needs to have a well-resourced communication department, with professionals of the highest capability advising others and implementing programmes that build and defend the organisation, adding value to the communities they serve.

These reasons are why communication is a vital strategic asset for all organisations.

Further reading