When I was a kid playing Sunday league junior football, our team had a madcap coach who genuinely believed he was Shankly, Ferguson and Clough all rolled into one.
He’d work us to the point of exhaustion during Saturday morning training sessions, whilst gleefully recounting the three famous occasions on which he allegedly turned out for Partick Thistle.
On match days, he’d bark orders so ferociously from the sidelines that most of us learned to tune him out and focus instead on getting through to half-time for the sweet relief of a mud-splattered orange segment.
His interval pep talk invariably carried the same message: “You’re not challenging enough”.
Not challenging the 3ft 6in goalkeeper at corners; not challenging for headers when the ball’s hoofed six miles into the air; not challenging the weak right-back who’s clearly only in the opposition side ‘cos his dad’s their coach, and so on.
He loved a challenge. And (seamless ‘junior sport to local government comms’ transition coming up…) if he’d been working next to me over the past few years, he’d have been in his element.
For there’s been no end of challenges – and, amid troubled economic times, these are only likely to increase for comms teams across the land.
I’ll not be at the coalface to see how it all unfolds, mind you. I’m leaving local government in a few weeks for pastures new, but will keep a keen eye on how its challenges are addressed.
The importance of staying relevant
For a start, there’s the challenge of extra responsibility. It’s been loaded onto local government of late – as comms folk will already be fully aware. By now, I imagine the terms “welfare reform” and “public health transition” will either bring a smile to the face or induce mild hysteria.
Ideally, it’ll be the former as there are many inter-dependencies between health and local government, creating tremendous opportunities for comms professionals to demonstrate their value, showcase their creativity and make a genuine difference.
This leads nicely onto the challenge of remaining valued. It’s easy enough for the bean counters to think ‘well, the PR folks are a luxury’ in difficult financial times. But effective strategic comms is more important than it’s ever been.
The stories needing to be told – and the conversations needing to be had – over the coming years won’t be pretty. Services will be vanishing or dramatically reduced. There’s no point pretending otherwise. Those parting with their council tax need to know, in plain English, what they’re getting in return and, if it’s less than it used to be, why that’s the case.
Sounds simple, but anyone who’s seen an accountant have a stab at a double-page budget spread in the residents’ magazine will know that comms professionals are very much needed. And if this focus on the bigger picture stuff means your comms people are no longer knocking out press releases on the local school’s bulb planting events, well, that’s no bad thing.
There’s the challenge of the brave new comms world, too. The enlightened are already thriving.
The not-so-enlightened are still aimlessly punting out sermons-from-the-mount press releases in the hope that they’ll make a few pars on page 15 of the local paper, with its limited shelf life and ABC figures clearly illustrating it’s not the be-all-and-end-all it once was. That’s as mad as it sounds. There’s plenty of smart, social, direct and cost-effective tools at our disposal to make the most of now.
There’s some good ‘uns out there
The great thing for local government comms, of course, is that there’s some outstanding people operating in the field.
You’ve only to look at the community forged by comms2point0 to see that there are not only top people doing top work, but also being kind enough to share the benefit of their wisdom with fellow practitioners.
It’s pleasing to see a lot of this work being done oop north. The Northumberland County Council team led by Ross Wigham is blazing a social trail nationally.
And in Leeds, Phil Jewitt’s endeavours to bring about a truly social organisation are required reading.
In such capable hands, the future’s bright.
In the meantime, I’m off to clear my desk. Anyone need a broken stapler or six-month-old satsuma?