Farewell then, local government…

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?

Light fantastic

The big Christmas lights switch-on – late-November staple diet stuff for council comms and events teams across the land.

In previous festive seasons, we pretty much could’ve done it in our sleep. Press release – check; posters and leaflets – check; special guests – check…

And don’t get me wrong, we did all of the above for the illuminating of the seaside town of Redcar again this time round.

But this year was the first in which we really wanted to harness the power of social media to create an online buzz around our Chrimbo events, bringing a boost to businesses and giving the council a bit of a reputational shot in the arm at the same time.

We’d had some recent flak for trimming £40k from the festive lights budget this year, arguing that in turbulent economic times there was a delicate balance to strike between maintaining frontline services and not being seen as Scrooge-esque.

#RCXmas

Facebook and Twitter were the focus of our efforts.

We set up the #RCXmas hashtag to push last Friday night’s Redcar main event with its fairground, log cabins, local performers and the switch-on with X Factor boyband The Risk.

We also used #RCXmas as a space where residents, schools, community and voluntary groups could share details of their own Christmas fairs, plays, carol concerts and other events – all of which we retweeted. Even The Risk themselves got in on the act.

Daily FB updates counted down to the switch-on, urging people to share their pictures and signposting to a dedicated web page outlining all of our communities’ festive activities.

Keen to get involved with the social drive, our portfolio holder for leisure and tourism did us a couple of Audioboo clips encouraging folk to turn out in force and we had listings on n0tice.

Glad tidings 

Did it all work? Well, I’ve no footfall figures yet, but I’ve never seen the town so busy.

According to Tweetreach, over the five days leading up to the event the #RCXmas hashtag reached 205,791 accounts, generating 240,107 impressions.

By 9pm on the night itself, we had a gallery of more than 50 superb images from the event up on our Facebook page, as well as on a Pinterest board. The likes and positive comments are still coming in.

Most importantly of all, we’ve had some really encouraging levels of engagement – and hopefully spread some social festive cheer into the bargain.

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Photo – Dave Charnley Photography

A matter of PRide

Okay, so a blog penned whilst bleary-eyed after only a few hours’ kip probably isn’t going to make for great reading.

But what the heck, here goes. 

For last night, little old Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council’s communications unit won the ‘Outstanding In-House PR Team of the Year’ title at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ PRide North-East Awards. 

For the team it was the culmination of about two-and-a-half years’ worth of hard graft to establish a first-rate comms set-up within the organisation.

Three new comms folks – myself included – were recruited in March 2010, not long after the Government’s now-defunct Place Survey had shown our residents’ overall satisfaction levels to be pretty low. Improving reputation was high on the agenda. 

Getting to work

Did we do anything flash or innovative to achieve that? Not particularly, to be honest.

But a huge amount of time and effort was ploughed into getting the fundamental basics of local government comms right.

Media relations, the trusty old residents’ magazine, consultation, crisis management, getting a handle on all print and design activity across the authority, tackling a massive internal comms challenge (we picked up the Best Internal Publication gold award last night too) – they all required major surgery. 

This work began as the council embarked on the biggest regeneration programme in its history, having secured tens of millions in external grants in the nick of time before various funding doors were slammed shut. In the coastal town of Redcar alone, £75m was being invested. The renaissance of Greater Eston was bringing eco-homes, a health centre, supermarket and jobs. All of this required comms support.

By the end of 2010 we were also facing up to the challenges around making £34m worth of cuts in the wake of the Comprehensive Spending Review. 

Cultural barriers

In December 2011, the comms office was home to eight of us. Today, there’s just the four.

Truth be told, we now cast envious glances in the direction of our local government counterparts making giant strides forward in the worlds of social and digital engagement.

Building a decent basic comms operation from scratch has left us a little behind the rest of the field.

The task ahead is now all about breaking down some of the sizeable cultural barriers we face in that regard.

To be fair, there have been encouraging signs in recent weeks and as a team we’re wholeheartedly committed to banging on about the benefits until we’re blue in the face. 

We’ll get there eventually – and hopefully our new trophy haul will give our voice a bit of added clout.