Owning the local message

By Cormac Smith | 30 March 2021

If local areas are to thrive then they must better co-ordinate their efforts and tell clear, consistent and compelling stories. A conversation with Dave Worsell about his latest project, DigiKind, which aims to empower local communities through digital transformation, made me think about the communications challenges for local areas.

I last worked in local government in 2015 when as interim director of communications for Kingston upon Thames RLBC I spent about half my time working on community engagement, a major priority for the administration at the time. I felt then it was an area, along with staff engagement, where local government should have been spending more time and effort.

Since then, I have had two spells as deputy director of communications at the Cabinet Office, spent two years as strategic communications adviser to the foreign minister of Ukraine and am currently working in the private sector, focusing on developing new products and helping clients develop the communication skills they will need to thrive in the new normal.

Speaking to Dave about the challenge of place-shaping, a term I had not heard in a few years, I realised there was a very real need to get back to the basics of good communication practice and to find a way to make these skills more accessible to local communities. This includes everyone who needs to reach local people from not-for-profit organisations, start-ups, business improvement districts, companies large and small, to the local statutory partners.

Local authorities in most cases no longer have the resources required to communicate and engage sufficiently with a multitude of local groups, such has been the evisceration of their finances over the last decade.

There have been huge advances in digital technology. This provides new opportunities to communicate with significantly greater reach and sophistication.

But the use of the latest digital technology alone is not enough. Core strategic communication skills are often missing. Without these skills one may as well have the world’s most expensive amplifier hooked up to a cheap record deck playing discordant tunes – the results will not be pleasant, engaging or very memorable.

There are four core communication disciplines every organisation needs to master. Enabling local groups to develop them could help focus, co-ordinate and supercharge local partnerships and with them their local areas.

Media relations

Too many obituaries have been written for the press release and good old-fashioned ways of working effectively with the media.

Regardless that much more news is now online and new channels abound, the fundamentals of good working relationships with gatekeepers who understand news agendas and know how to package a story, remain as important as ever. This applies equally to local media as it does to national and specialist channels and journalists.

Presentation skills

The ability to speak and present in a concise, compelling but also astute way will never go out of fashion, but it is a skill that too few, at every level, ever really master.

Whether the requirement is to carry out a media interview, make a pitch for funding or address a community group, there are small lessons that can be coached and learned that can make a big difference. How we speak impacts on almost everything we communicate.

Stakeholder engagement

Like all forms of communication, stakeholder engagement is far more about science than art and simply being a brilliant networker, although that is also an important factor.

Understanding who is interested and who has influence in a particular issue and being able to map them accordingly, then knowing how to engage with different groups and individuals, is vital.

Having a clear, detailed map of stakeholders aligned to key issues is fundamental in marshalling resources, mobilising champions and engaging influential voices for key local campaigns.

Campaign planning

The curse of effective communication, even in large well-resourced organisations, is SOS – sending out stuff without proper planning, sufficient forethought, co-ordination, strategy or a clear idea of what is to be achieved. SOS is ineffective and often a waste of time and money.

The Government Communication Service uses the OASIS template when designing campaigns, everything from the Great Campaign which promotes the UK abroad in over 140 countries to the latest high profile COVID awareness and behaviour change campaigns. It is a great model for all communicators to follow whether you are in Government, business or a not-for-profit organisation.

OASIS stands for Objective, Audience, Strategy, Implementation and Scoring/evaluation. It is much more than a campaign template, it is a way of strategic thinking that should inform activities carried out by local partnerships,

Conclusion

When I began my career in local government I believed communication needed to be highly centralised and controlled with an iron fist, and I was not alone.

More recently I am prone to tell senior leaders when I first meet them that communication is not my job – it is theirs – my job is to support them.

Technology is driving the democratisation of all forms of communication; this is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Local areas are facing massive challenges as we begin to emerge from the global pandemic. Local business communities and everyone with a stake in the local area must come together, collaborate and speak with one voice as never before. They need to own the message.

We know local areas are brimming with smart, driven, entrepreneurial people whose mission is to succeed and make their communities succeed. Targeted investment that develops the right communication skills in the right place and provides some ongoing support and guidance could be just the edge that a local area needs to succeed in the months and years ahead.

Cormac Smith has held a number of senior positions, including deputy director of communications at the UK Cabinet Office, strategic communications adviser to the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, and as director of communications for several UK local authorities

@CormacS63

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