The landscape around communications has changed enormously over the past ten years but skills and its place in the hierarchy have remained stagnant, or declined. Simon Jones, Senior Account Director for Westco, and Francis Ingham, Director General of the Public Relations and Communications Association, explain.
- Modern communications has to work well beyond town hall structures to be the champion of place.
- Communications skills need to evolve with far greater emphasis on working across the digital environment.
- To maximise the power of communications it needs far closer alignment with business intelligence, digital and technology, strategic-HR and policy/strategy with the right leadership skills in place.
The potential power of what a modern communications function can deliver has grown enormously over the past 10 years – but it requires us to think differently if we are to harness this power.
Well thought through communications, with the right conditions, influence and leadership in place, has the ability to strengthen relationships in a way that not only builds trust but also pre-empts problems, designs solutions, changes behaviour, builds social capital and ultimately improves lives.
Yet the gear change needed requires both a step-up in skills and a step-up in how communications is valued in the hierarchy.
Think back ten years ago, and the requirements of communications were largely confined to managing the town hall brand through media engagement, printing publications and running outdoor campaigns.
Move forward ten years and the landscape around has totally changed, yet the hierarchy and skills have largely remained stagnant, or worse, declined.
These days the digital landscape is now the primary interface between citizens and public services, which is beginning to blur the lines between customer services and what used to be considered communications.
At the same time local government is moving away from believing that every problem can be solved in the town hall to a far greater recognition that many of our solutions begin and end with communities and the role that local people and partners play.
This means that the modern communicator needs new tools and skills to do the job effectively. We need to think of our role as protector of place rather than brand with a much bigger understanding of what makes our communities tick, where the assets lie and what their role is in achieving success.
To support this the delivery of communications needs to move on from the traditional silos of ‘press’, ‘marketing’ and ‘digital’ with integrated skills where people are as savvy dealing with social media as they are the local press, as confident with film and imagery as they are with words.
And within local government there also has to be far greater appreciation of the skills and leadership qualities needed to do the job.
Well thought-through strategic communications should be the engine that drives corporate plans and community strategies. It should not only be the instigator of compelling narratives about ambition for place people, it should be the catalyst for seeing those ambitions realised.
To work effectively we need a better understanding of the building blocks of what makes a successful strategic communications function and the tools needed to do its job effectively.
- Business intelligence/research
The starting point is the need to delve much deeper into our communities and what makes them tick. We need to move well beyond understanding what drives satisfaction to understanding what drives behaviour, social mobility, agency and ultimately demand on services.
- Policy and strategy
Communications and policy should work hand in hand, with each contributing to each other’s aims. We need to re-imagine the work of community engagement and stakeholders to something that is far more in tune with understanding the tapped and untapped assets within our communities and their role in shaping the places where we live.
- Organisational development
Internal communications needs to gear shift into organisational development through closer alignment with strategic HR. To succeed our world should be far less about values on a page and far more about seeing those values lived and breathed across the organisation by being clearer about the mission ahead and the role of individuals and teams within that mission.
Website design and content management should fall squarely within communications in order to move to an integrated approach based on maximum understanding of the customer through email marketing, social media, content management and search engine optimisation.
By far the biggest inhibitor or enabler to strategic communications is the leadership of communications within the team and across the authority and community. To succeed communications has to be correctly positioned within the hierarchy, ideally at Tier 2 but not lower than Tier 3, with the right relationships and influence in place to succeed.
Closer integration and the development of skills, resources and recognition magnifies the power of what communications can achieve for any organisation. It has the potential to become the driving force between public bodies and their citizens, and one of the key enablers in both service transformation and managing demand on services.