The future of comms in local government

The Local by Social online conference (various levels of sign-up required) is turning out to be a bit of a triumph. Yesterday saw some fascinating discussions about various elements of technology (mostly web) enabled change. Well done Ingrid (and team)!

One was superbly facilitated by Walsall Council’s Dan Slee, who ran discussion on the subject of where communications in local government is likely to be headed.

I came fairly late to the party, and my point was that it’s probably less important for people in comms to consider how they fulfil their current role in a web 2.0 age, rather than to think about how the internet disrupts their entire way of working, and that a back to basics, “what are we here for?” type discussion is probably needed.

I’ve pasted in my comment below, it should still make sense despite being ripped out of context.

Perhaps in this – extremely interesting and thought provoking – thread, we are asking the wrong question.

Maybe the question should be “What is the point of the council communications team?”

Here’s what I mean: framing the discussion around social media and whatever comes after it may not be entirely helpful in this instance. I suspect that the real changes that affect the way organisations communicate are longer term and wider ranging.

It’s clear that advances in technology are changing both the information that people are consuming, and the way that they consume it.

The internet – and I use that word deliberately – is the force that is behind this change, and it has both been a long time coming and been going on for a long time, before Facebook, blogging and even the web itself.

If the internet does one thing, it reduces the cost of delivery of information to zero. That has profound consequences which are now starting to be realised. Any organisation, or role, that is based on the delivery of information (and I would argue that comms is one such role) needs to have a real think about a) what it actually wants to achieve; and then b) figure out the processes and tools to make that happen.

Take the newspaper, TV and music industries – probably the three hit most hard by the effects of the internet. All of those three industries failed to realise in time what business they were in. The newspapers thought they were about news; the TV stations about making television programmes; and the music industry about making music.

Nope. They were all in the logistics business. The value they added was in delivering content to people, whether on paper, through the telly or on CD.

If you listen to the bleating of the record labels, you’d actually think that nobody made any music before they came around, and certainly that no poor, suffering musician made any money. In fact, there was a BBC interview with Mick Jagger recently where he pointed out that, other than a few years in the late 1970s, the Stones haven’t made a penny personally from any of their records – all their income was from concerts and merchandising. In other words, if we cut out the record labels, as the internet allows us to do, nobody but the record labels suffer.

Anyway, I digressed a bit there. But the point remains: what business are you in? What are you trying to achieve?

I honestly don’t know – maybe that’s because I never worked in comms… is it something about managing the organisation’s reputation?

In the past (and probably the present) comms departments controlled messages, fed stories to local papers, got councillors on the radio and local TV and that sort of thing.

But how can they continue to do that when they are no longer faced by a couple of newspapers, one TV channel and a handful of radio stations, rather hundreds of blogs, locally or nationally, YouTube users who can put video up at the drop of a hat, people armed with mobile phones, throwing up audio online – all of whom potentially have audiences way in advance of those traditional mediums.

How can comms teams do that job when every member of staff also has access to these tools, and every councillor too?

So what, now, is the purpose of the comms guys? Why does a council need a comms department at all? Figure that one out, and I would imagine everything else will just drop into place.

3 thoughts on “The future of comms in local government”

  1. Hi Dave,

    I posted this reply into the CoP:

    Dave is right…
    Sadly perhaps i’ve been doing a lot of work around business models, business planning and service value at the moment and one of the key aspects of creating a business model is defining your “value proposition” – an example of what i mean can be seen here and here < be warned it can be a bit heavy going but it is useful context
    In the current climate i feel that it is the duty of all service managers to revisit this question and ensure that they are clear about how they can answer this before any discussion about access and relationship channels is considered.

    Once this is done then it should be a straight forward process to map the "best channels" to the key processes and then you'll be able to demonstrate the value you are generating linked to the measures and metrics identified. Again this is all part of the business model process.

    I think that maybe some people are using new tools as a way to justify that they can still exist but at lower costs…

    The question for me though is what value are they creating and is that the value we want to create.

    1. Not sadly at all Carl – I completely agree that in a pared down world you need to really understand the essence of what it is that you uniquely bring to the situation. This is extremely difficult for any area that can be described as ‘back office’ in that they exist to serve the core services of the organisation rather than as an end in themselves (not that many comms people would admit this perhaps).

      I am seeing a lot of Comms teams struggling with this question and the ones which are going to be successful are the ones that realise that in the broadcast model they are just back office functions and can be dispensed with. Where they could add value is around a new function that brings the public into the heart of decision making, transformed consultation and engagement and supports elected representatives in a way that goes beyond just giving them committee papers. And they are probably not the only back office function in the frame to do this – the question is how will these combine and what flavour will they be in each council.

      Anyway – enough from me


  2. Hi Dave

    I was at that workshop and I thought your contribution was very useful and I have been musing on it ever since. In fact I have got halfway to a blog post about what an excellent local authority will look like in 2015 which I think could help to frame how we think about these things.

    I think the rhetoric or theory about what a corporate comms team does (which would be something about managing the relationships between the authority and the stakeholders it works with to ensure the authority can deliver the best fitted services) is at best only partly true.

    The corporate comms team is, of course, heavily involved in managing and exercising the power of the centre of the organisation. That’s the challenge. Well not the only challenge but certainly part of the challenge. If chief execs and leading politicians see communications (not necessarily explicitly) as a tool of their power structure, they’re going to be challenged by a world where power leaks out of and in to the organisation all over the place.

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