Is the communications specialist dead?


Today’s excellent Twitter chat, hosted by @comms2point0 and @bencapper looked at the #idealcommsteam and got me thinking.

In the current financial climate, can communications teams still afford specialists, or is generalism the new specialism?

In his excellent blog post, @bencapper highlighted the challenges he faces in putting together a small team from scratch. Ben looked at what roles he would want in his team, and how difficult it is to make these decisions.

In taking a zero based approach, which I blogged about earlier this year, it is hard to find the right balance between the skills of individuals and overall requirements of the team. But have we reached the point where everyone now needs to be able to do everything?

They may do it in very different ways, and be permitted and encouraged to do so, but should Heads/Directors of Communications be able to call upon any member of their shrinking teams to carry out any particular activity?

Darren Caveney’s blog on his experience over 10 years as a Head of Communications highlighted the versatility and resilience required for this role, but should these requirements permeate throughout the team?

In my own experience leading communications teams, people have usually joined with a specialism. In the past these have included media relations, marketing, web, and internal communications, and they have been joined in recent years by insight and social media, to name a few.

Even team members who have studied communications in academia have tended to move from a general perspective to a particular specialism. Why? Numerous people have spoken and written about the need for social media skills to be generic, so why doesn’t this apply to other specialisms too? Digital and traditional should be essential tools for all communicators.

Have we now reached the stage where communications teams just need two job descriptions, one for a leader and one for everyone else? And how different should they be?

In today’s climate, especially in the public sector, the nature of the team members themselves is becoming increasingly important. So the person specification is superseding the job description.

This doesn’t mean that experience isn’t important, it is. But only if it’s meaningful and successful, and only if the individual(s) concerned showcased the talent they possess.

Talent should trump experience, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But let’s make the former an essential requirement, and the latter a nice add-on.


From Zero To Hero


As the dust settles on elections results and their aftermath, what is the future for local government communicators and their teams?

Further cuts are on the way, so at some point the question of the size and worth of a communications function will be debated in nearly every council. And rightly so. So what are you going to do about it?

You are repeatedly told that things will never be the same again, that you’re entering a brave new world etc, but if that’s the case are you responding in the right way? Is a new approach required?

Many communications teams have already been restructured, resulting in smaller teams. Those that haven’t yet gone through this will do so. But this is unlikely to be the last time this happens, so it’s more important than ever to prove your worth, so you can both survive and thrive.

But rather than just look at your world through your existing activities, why not step back, be bold, and try a zero based approach? In other words, if your communications team was being created today what would, and should, it do? Start with a clean slate.

Every one of you will be carrying some form of baggage, doing things because they’ve always been done, even though you doubt their worth. But why?

The perceived wisdom among many is that councils are very traditional organisations, lacking innovation and creativity, where time served often trumps ability in terms of career progression. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now is as good a time as any for you and your teams to shine.

Using a zero based approach, here are ten starters for ten for some ‘do’s and don’ts’ for communications teams. These suggestions use the criteria of making a difference to the lives of residents and/or having an impact on a significant number of colleagues in your council. If your work doesn’t meet one or both of these criteria then why are you doing it?


..things that make a difference to residents’ lives. Communications and marketing can play a key role in rolling out new or redesigned services that make people’s lives better and easier. If your work isn’t contributing to your community, stop doing it. part of change, not just a communicator of change. Internal communications and employee engagement will be more important than ever as budgets and staffing levels shrink, but make sure you’re at the heart of the message itself. Be more than the messenger.

..evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. You need to prove that what you do works, and change tack or stop doing it if it doesn’t. And evaluate properly, measuring the wider outcomes and not some meaningless outputs. whenever you can. Join forces with neighbouring councils or partner organisations whenever it makes sense to do so, always working alone doesn’t. All councils run campaigns to recruit foster carers or discourage litter, but why do you all need bespoke artwork and locally purchased advertising space? Unite behind one image and message and buy on a regional basis. It’s better and cheaper.

..make social media work for you and your residents, and show how it does. It’s no longer the future, it’s the present, but only use what works. And use it as part of an integrated approach, it’s a means to an end, not an end itself.

Don’t safe with recruitment. Creativity and potential are just as important as knowledge and reliability, and you can have both. The former will take you to where you need to go, there’s already too much of the latter.

..waste disproportionate time on the unimportant. For example don’t enter any awards for a few years. If your criteria for entering were whether or not winning such awards had any benefit for residents or an impact on a significant number of staff, you would never submit a bid again.

..obsess about media coverage, chasing headlines for headlines sake, traditional media is not what it was. This is easier said than done, especially with the near obsession of some elected members and senior officers with local media coverage. But other channels can be much better. social media purely for the sake of it. It is not the answer to everything, and when misused can be a big waste of time.

..take no for an answer. New ideas can take time to be accepted, so persevere. To a point. If your organisation isn’t going to change quickly enough then move on to somewhere that will. Don’t waste your talents.

These are my ten starters for ten, there are many more. What are yours?




Shout, Laugh, and Breathe


Shouting and laughing at the same time is difficult, but not impossible.

There’s been a lot of noise over the past few days about the nature and number of communications roles in local government. Newspapers, journals, politicians, trade associations, consumer groups (I use the term very loosely) and bloggers have all had their say. Some of it sensible and accurate, some of it not. But how much should we let it bother us?

In his excellent summary of these articles Dan Slee of @comms2point0 has urged communications professionals to shout more about what they do to make sure that the right people know the value of their work. And he’s right.

Understandably, and rightly, communications is being looked at in the current world of decreasing budgets, so it would be an unfortunate irony if teams were depleted because nobody made the case for them.

There are still communications teams that are too big, and it is right that this is being challenged. However, many councils have already made savings and reduced the size of teams, and others will need to follow. And it can be done in a way that still preserves the key focus and activities required.

The Press Gazette’s article on the number of communications professionals working in local government was both simplistic and predictable. The numbers used were for people rather than the more accurate figure for full-time roles, and even though they explained this in the article they still went with the bigger numbers in the headlines. An interesting paradox especially as the article makes a reference to spin.

The reference to spin and spin doctors gets up some people’s noses, as it once did mine. Nowadays it just makes me laugh. It’s an outdated, lazy, and inaccurate way of describing the role of communications teams. The element I assume they are referring to is the media relations function, which is often a small part of a multi-functional communications team, and the journalists know this. Some of them just choose to ignore it.

The Press Gazette’s attempt to contrast the number of people in public sector communications with the dwindling numbers working in local newspapers was not a surprise, bearing in mind the paper’s audience. But this is like comparing apples with oranges, they’re just not related.

Local and regional newspapers are having to cut back because the public aren’t buying them.  They’re not buying some of them because the product they are offering, either in a printed or online format, is no longer meeting their reader’s needs. So they go elsewhere, it’s just market forces in action.

The West Midland’s Express and Star article is irritating and amusing in equal measure. To see politicians falling over themselves to class all communications teams as spin doctors is both inaccurate and annoying. But at the same time it’s less than three weeks until an election so what should we expect?

Sometimes the best course of action is just to laugh. In the grand scheme of things these articles are likely to have little or no impact, so perhaps we should let it go.

As for the Taxpayers Alliance, who never fail to chip in, I don’t understand why the media or anyone gives them airtime. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that they have a political agenda, so why anyone presents them as an objective observer working on behalf of the public is beyond me. It’s just lazy journalism.

They preach about openness, value for money, and transparency. And yet if you ask them to be open about where they get their money from, they quietly put their soapbox away. And as for transparency, you don’t have to probe too deeply before you can see right through them.

So although there’s a serious side to the articles that have appeared of late, we should read a lot of it with a smile on our faces. And then relax and breathe.

Give Us Something To Vote For


With just under seven weeks until polling day, councils are cranking up their campaigns to make sure people are eligible to vote on 7th May.

And, quite rightly, they will also be encouraging people to use their vote. But what are the choices available, if indeed there are any choices at all?

How the world communicates and engages has changed beyond recognition in recent years. The online world has seen conversation replace rhetoric, something the world of party politics seems to have missed.

This week’s Budget is a classic example. The exchanges in the House of Commons were both predictable and pitiful, and the follow up was just as bad. 

Media interviews had already been choreographed to tribal steps, with all sides predicting apocalyptic consequences if their opponents ever got the chance to govern.

And the traditional media were no better either. They too are part of the dinosaurs enclosure inside the Westminster bubble.

And if you really wanted to get depressed, all you had to do was follow a Twitter feed as one politician after another used their online loud hailers to proclaim that their side held a monopoly on wisdom. And that their opponents were the devil incarnate.

But guess what? We don’t believe you. We have minds of our own. We don’t need politicians to tell us what we think, we’ll make that judgement ourselves. So here’s three simple tips for anyone wanting a vote in May:

1 Communicate clearly what we will be voting for if we choose you. How will you improve our lives, what positive difference will you make? Just rubbishing your opponents isn’t good enough.

2 Use online media and other channels to converse and engage, not to broadcast. Ask us what we think in addition to giving us your views, that’s how conversation works.

3 Spin is dead. It wasn’t that great when it was popular, now it’s just embarrassing. And it doesn’t work. So stop it.

This election, more than any previously, gives politicians the chance to converse and engage in a more personal way than ever before. 

And yet the knee jerk reaction of shout first and maybe listen later is still prevailing. 

You have seven weeks to outline what positive choices I and others have, and to find out if that’s what I want. All you have to do is listen.

Reputation: A School of Thought


Good communication, customer service, and reputation management can not be achieved in isolation. Every link in the chain has to work. Here’s why.

There has been a lot of snow today. Councils throughout the country have worked tirelessly through the night and the day to keep cities, towns, and villages moving, so that we can all get on with our daily lives. They’ve done a fantastic job.

Communications, Highways, and other teams have also worked constantly to communicate what is happening, using Twitter, Facebook, websites, and other channels to keep residents up-to-date with the latest developments. What they’ve done has been mostly great.

So this should be a good news story for councils, and their residents. Except in many cases it isn’t, because of one issue – school closures.

Much of the kudos earned will have instantly disappeared when the announcements began flooding in of school closures, delayed openings, and early finishes. Parents can then not get to work, employers are frustrated, and so who carries the can? You guess right. Councils.

And yet it is not councils who decide to close schools, it is the schools themselves. I accept that it is a tricky decision to make but today, as on previous occasions as both a resident and a local government communicator, I have seen for myself a number of schools that are closed in areas where the traffic is flowing freely on roads that are clear of snow.

After a great deal of hard work to allow schools to remain open, many of them still decide to close.

So why is this?  I’m aware that the decision is often based on how easily teachers can get to the school, and that they may live in less accessible areas, but can they really not get in? The answer may be yes, but if that’s the case the school needs to explain that.

Some pupils might not be able to make it in for the same reason, but I suspect the majority can. So why do so many schools still close when the rest of the population (well, most of them, but that’s a story for another day) make so much effort to get to work?

My local council has put out some excellent information today about road and weather conditions, including links to schools closure notifications.

And this is where the schools can help themselves and their local authority colleagues a lot more. The email alerts posted by schools need, in most cases, to say a lot more than they do. Just saying a school will be closed because of the bad weather isn’t enough, especially when it is obvious to the naked eye that the route to and from many schools is clear or at least passable.

So I would ask schools to do two things: first, to close only if you really have to; and second, to communicate properly the reasons behind your decision to close if that is what you decide you must do.

Local government and the public sector in general have a difficult enough job to persuade the public that they both do a good job and provide value for money.

Parents, employers, and other tax paying residents rightly expect all of their public services to work together during times of bad weather to keep services operational. This will only work if every link in the chain functions properly. And if every link does this, then everyone will be happier.


Is apathy, not cuts, the big issue for local government?


Do the public care about cuts to local government and other public services? If not, why not? And if they don’t, what are local government leaders going to say and do about it?

This month has seen both the Autumn Statement and, more recently, initial details of the financial settlement for local government. Once again, the trend of severe cuts has continued, and will do so irrespective of who wins next year’s General Election.

Analysis from august institutions including the Office for Budget Responsibility and Institute for Fiscal Studies has given us some grim portents. One million public sector jobs are likely to go by 2020, when we will also see the lowest spending on public services in 80 years.

And if we think it’s been bad so far, the worst is yet to come. Since 2010 there have been cuts of £35 billion, but there are still £55 billion to go.

And the Local Government Association says that the core grant to local government has reduced by 40 per cent since 2010.

Whilst national politicians trade blows and the battle for votes begins in earnest, what does this mean for local government? What is the narrative, and is the message hitting home?

Not a week goes by without a council announcing that jobs will go, things will only get worse, and some services will no longer be provided. It’s the latter that interests me, along with the risk of crying wolf and the public perception of what is taking place.

I don’t for one moment want to see services drastically reduced, but anyone who’s worked in local government knows that something has to give. But what? Can anyone cite a service reduction or abolition anywhere that has really made residents stop and think that local government is never going to be the same again? Today’s headlines about street lights being dimmed are only the tip of the iceberg.

The irony is that as long as councils continue to manage budget reductions effectively without major service changes then most residents aren’t going to pay attention.  It is likely that unless roads deteriorate to a level of considerable danger, the streets are strewn with litter, and schools have no books, then the current prophecies of doom will fall on deaf ears.

So maybe it’s time for talk to be replaced by both talk and action. If councils want their residents to understand what is really happening, then they have to both take and implement difficult decisions.

They need to eyeball their residents and tell them what’s going to happen, and then make it happen. Too many politicians are prevaricating, constantly worrying about losing votes and delaying the inevitable. Indecision and inaction do not provide clarity. And there’s a risk that the longer the delay, the less control councils will have of how they manage service reductions.

My own informal and unscientific research over the past few years, with friends who mostly don’t work in local government, has shown little sympathy for or emotional connection to cuts to local government.

‘About time too’, ‘overstaffed and overpaid’, and ‘there’s so much waste that could be cut’, are just some of the sentiments expressed, so the message is clearly not getting through.

There is a risk that those working in local government overestimate public sympathy for their plight.  My own experience, both personally and professionally, is that the battle for hearts and mind has not been won.

However, the public do have an emotional connection with the NHS, and I’m not sure this is healthy. Protecting funding of the NHS at the expense of other public services doesn’t make practical sense to me, but political parties are falling over each other to do just that, and for one reason, votes.

It might not be popular to say it, but I don’t see why the NHS should be treated differently to local government. NHS colleagues need to develop a similar culture to council staff regarding financial prudence, and I don’t think this exists at the moment. The burden of reduced budgets needs to be shared. Robbing Peter to protect Paul just doesn’t make sense.

Social care is a perfect example. Demand is increasing as funding falls, and yet an effective social care system can ultimately reduce healthcare costs. Health and social care are inextricably linked, so how can you protect one and not the other? You wouldn’t strengthen two walls of a house and leave the other two to crumble.

The sacred cows have to be challenged, both nationally and locally, so that future pain is managed effectively and equitably.

If local government is going to get its message across, regrettably it now has to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Residents need to understand that it is not a case of if, but when, with when being now. And they need to be persuaded to give a damn.




Local Government: The Next Generation


Local government, and the range and method of services it delivers, has to change. We all know that, but are we actually making real change happen? Or more to the point, who is and who will do it?

I have just left a role in local government, and hope to return to a different one in a couple of months time. My reasons for leaving were to pursue a different type of career as an interim in this sector, but with or without the career change I have gone through a lot of soul searching over the past year or so.

The reason for this angst is dealing with the question of whether or not I, and particularly some of my colleagues, are the right people to lead local government through this period of uncertainty and change.

I have managed to convince myself that I am the right kind of person, but I would think that wouldn’t I? The reason for the wider question is that local government is predominantly run by ‘officers’ who have spent a long time working in, er, local government.

They have pensions to work towards, and a hinterland of days gone by when money was less tight and the sector felt it could do more. Many are used to doing things a certain way, and change of this magnitude does not sit comfortably with them.

But the world is very different now. We are constantly spouting the mantra that we have to think differently but, more importantly, are we acting differently? We are in a world where we will do less with less, but how many local government leaders are genuinely being radical about no longer delivering some services or completely redesigning the way they deliver others, including their own?

In some cases the requirement is for turkeys to vote for Christmas, but is the will and the imagination to do so inherent in many managers or leaders’ thinking?

The reason for this line of questioning is actually a positive one. There are many bright, talented, and ambitious people making their way in local government, who don’t carry the baggage of the past. And there are just as many making their way in other sectors, who could be major assets to local government. They do think and act differently without realising they are doing so.

If talent management and succession planning are going to work in the brave new world we all face, how are the new leaders going to get the opportunities to prove their worth? For every emerging star there is often a colleague standing in the way, stubbornly refusing to accept that the world has changed and yet they haven’t.

It may be time for some to step aside, to skip a generation. Longevity of service should become much less of an issue when appointing to senior roles, so that new talent can flourish alongside existing talent who have adapted to the current climate.

And some of those in senior roles should be asking themselves whether or not the future really is for them or, more challengingly, colleagues may need to have a word in their ear.

Transformation is all the rage in local government, so that the vital services that residents need can still be delivered in a seemingly endless period of austerity.

If the sector is going to thrive then it needs people at the helm who can act differently and not just pretend to think differently. If you, and even I, are those people, then local government has a bright future.