David Holdstock, Director of Communications at The Local Government Association shares the highlights from the LGA’s annual heads of communications survey.
by David Holdstock
It’s fair to say that 2017 presented local government communicators with some exceptionally difficult challenges. The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy and terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London showed the need for timely and sensitive engagement with local communities who had been devastated by the terrible events. The best examples of community engagement were those where communicators from across the public sector worked together.
It is then perhaps not surprising given all that happened last year that the results of our annual heads of communication survey highlight the need for ever-closer working with local partners. Seventy per cent of those who responded said that they are intending to work more closely with colleagues in partner organisations in the coming year. With three quarters already running joint campaigns, this is really encouraging as we move towards more place-based communications.
Our survey also shows that reputation and resident engagement top the bill of priorities for the next 12 months. In my view, the two issues are inextricably linked and it’s important for us to consider them together. How satisfied residents are with their local area, how informed they feel and how responsive they find their council are all key drivers of reputation. You can’t improve one without investing in the other.
That’s why we launched our New Conversations and Understanding the views of residents’ toolkits to share examples of where councils are engaging effectively with their communities. The toolkits provide really useful examples to help councils develop priorities, activities and ambitions that reflect the needs of local people. It’s an issue that’s only going to get more important. As budgets continue to be stretched, councils will need the support of local residents to change the way services are delivered and commissioned, with residents even delivering some of those services themselves. Let’s be clear, this needs to be led strategically by communicators as part of our behaviour change work. However, to really understand our audiences we need to start with relevant insight. With just under half of councils running residents surveys there is still much to do to help us understand our communities.
As technology develops, there is a need to be ahead of the change. Developing digital skills was highlighted as a priority for two thirds of respondents, with more than half interested in sharpening their video skills. Although in itself technology isn’t the answer and still needs to be part of an overall strategy, council communications teams are embracing technology with almost every council now on Twitter and Facebook. However, we are still finding that often this is because ‘we need to be more digital’ rather than through research and insight. A really simple ‘who reads what survey’ will help to identify how residents are getting information and more importantly, how they would like to receive that information. There are lots of councils having great success engaging with residents through a simple email or on-line bulletin.
When it comes to resources, 28 per cent highlighted that their non-staffing budgets would be reducing this year. The average size of teams is 8.3FTE staff. This obviously differs depending on council type, with many operating as a sole practitioner. However, most say they are still expected to deliver media relations, crisis communications, campaigns and marketing, reputation management, digital and internal communications. All of this means that we need a sharper focus on priorities. The need to develop a clear strategy based on the key priorities of the organisation, with measurable objectives and processes for evaluation must now be a given.
Developing clear campaign plans with agreed budgets, signed off by our political and managerial leadership are a key part of that. However, our survey shows that only a third have this in place. These really are the basics if we are going to demonstrate our strategic value to our colleagues – rather than seen as the team who send out press releases and ‘comms it’. We’ll be looking at ways we can support teams to take a more campaign-focused approach.
This year’s survey suggests that as a profession, we still have some way to go before communications is seen as a strategic function, at the heart of decision-making. Just a third of respondents sit on their organisation’s corporate or senior management team, with a quarter reporting to their chief executive. Although reporting lines don’t necessarily matter, it shows that we still have work to do to demonstrate our strategic value. By creating proactive, effective strategic communications and delivering outcome and impact-focused campaigns that deliver real results, we can show the value we can add.
In the coming year, we will be working with a wide range of colleagues across the public and private sectors to set out what a modern, effective communications function should look like. The challenge for all of us is to ensure our political and managerial leaders understand ‘what good looks like’ and that they value our strategic input.
When it comes to professional support, case studies and online resources are seen as especially useful. We’ll continue to add to our Comms Hub and are keen to get to even more good examples of outstanding communications.
It’s impossible to capture everything that communication teams are contending with but I hope the results give you some useful benchmarking insight to compare your own team’s work to. It’s clear that we still have work to do to demonstrate that communications isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ but by working together to share good practice we move things on a long way.
You can see the full annual heads of communications survey here.
David Holdstock is director of communications at the Local Government Association
Image via SDASM Archive