What would happen if tomorrow local authorities agreed to spend no money at all on communication and public relations?
It would, of course, have an impact.
Journalists would have to go directly to senior officers and elected members for comment. This would eat up time better spent making decisions or looking at future challenges. Of course, time is already eaten up by media interest – but communication officers enable the flow of information to be better managed.
In some cases, this already happens. There are few comms people who control the message and exclusively manage the relationship with the media.
Journalists would still report on the local council. In some areas, there is little else to write about. The council would still be a major source of news as the decision-making cycles trundled on. It may be that the council would get a less rounded press but over time, and particularly because of the symbiotic relationship between the media and local authorities, that would change.
Journalists and councils need each other.
Various publications and products would fail. There would be no-one to design council newspapers and only local government officers to fill them. In time, products would be published and they would have more jargon than ever before. Whether anyone would read them less is questionable. Some council papers already have a reputation for being Pravda-like propaganda sheets.
Internal communication would suffer a similar fate. But since many staff rely upon their manager to “spin” the truth (I’ve been told to tell you…), it’s likely that not much would change. In all likelihood, a good deal of what emanates from the corporate centre will be taken with a pinch of salt in any event. Staff and managers will rely upon gossip and reading the runes to work out what’s happening and what’s coming their way. Local papers also play a pretty big role in informing staff about what’s going on, ironically.
Campaigns would fall by the wayside. Some, not all, are highly effective. But again, the net impact on service take up or dampening would be questionable. Mostly, councils will be in the business of driving down demand so individuals and families would simply be told that the services they want are no more. The net disappointment would be much the same.
Who would create and manage the narrative?
Knowing that there are no communications people there to come up with ideas and faced with the very real challenges of having to drive change through leadership, leaders would rise to the challenge. They do in many places already where communications staff are unable to access decision-makers or where they are deemed ineffective by leaders. Arguably, leaders would be forced to lead – by being visible and by doing things – rather than relying upon communications staff to tell others that they are leading.
What of crises?
Communications people really come into their own when there are crises. A communication adviser once suggested that if there isn’t a crisis when you are appointed to a new role, you should create one since it is then that people will realise your value. Not something I’d advocate.
All the same, communications people are noted for their value when the heat is on. At least some are. Besides, crises don’t occur every day. And if they do, then there are deeper problems in play than whether communication is working.
What of social media?
When push comes to shove, when services are disappearing and when citizens are being asked to do much more and pay even more, then the new media will be a useful tool if they are helpful but a distraction if they’re not.
And here’s the issue at hand: if councils were to cut back altogether on communications spend, what would be the net impact and is it worth the multi-million pound investment?
Some services would grind to a halt. It would be hard to persuade inward investors without strong communications. It would be difficult to sell the tourism benefits of an area. It would be hard to recruit foster carers or to drive up the demand for adoption. These things are real and tangible.
But a poor press is not going to kill anyone. Besides, after a while people get used to negative press and so it will become part of the taken for granted landscape.
And if staff, partners, citizens, stakeholders, opinion-formers and others already have reliable sources of information, or if they get as much data as they need without communication, then arguably, a decision to disinvest may not make much of a difference.
So what is the value of spending money on communication?
There are a number of key benefits that will continue to be worth investing in.
Real time information about key audiences – decision-makers need intelligence about how audiences will react to particular messages and how they might perceive particular actions.
Message design – there are ways of framing things that will result in a better understanding of services and challenges as well as bringing about significant changes in behaviour and attitude.
Truth to power – decision-makers can quickly become cloistered and start to believe their own spin. Communications people can be well-placed to challenge. But they need to be honest, tactful and credible.
Driving up demand – adoption, foster care, volunteering, positive social action, attendance rates, discretionary effort amongst staff, inward investment. All these areas will benefit directly from communications input.
Driving down demand – for services where the demand exceeds the supply.
Renegotiating the relationship between the council and the citizen – life will have to change. The old assumption that the state will provide the citizen all he or she needs will shortly be abandoned. In time, more of what citizens want they will have to do for themselves. This can be done without communications input but it will all the better for it. It will mean challenging expectations, renegotiating the citizen compact and enabling the relationship to move onto new terms.
So what does the future of communications look like?
For anyone in public services, uncertain.
Decision-makers will tend to focus on deliverable cuts and actions they can sell. Some things are saleable. But few politicians are likely to defend communications budgets should crowds descend on town halls. It’s harder to sell cutting essential services than it is cutting non-front line services.
Ironically, it’s harder to sell anything without strong communications expertise. But it can be done.
So if you are an adviser who has the ear of decision-makers and can originate solutions to some of the major emerging problems and challenges, then your future could be quite bright.
But if you’re a Nice To Have rather than Can’t Manage Without, then maybe it’s time to look at how you can add value, every day, starting today.
In time, when finances are under pressure, even sacred cows will be slaughtered.