Across the country whilst services have been reduced and management posts cut chief executives and council leaders have been increasing and enhancing the role of communication staff. For a number of years there has been a belief amongst council leaders that their councils are misunderstood, the challenges they face are not fully appreciated, that they are unfavourably portrayed in the local media and their achievements go unrecognised. The situation is no better internally where even their own staff don't seem to understand how little room for manoeuvre LAs have in the face of government dictates, shrinking budgets, an ageing population and increased awareness about sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable young people.
Successive government's " name and shame" policy and focus on reducing the complex things a council does into a simple league table creates sensational headlines for the local media. Council leaders and senior managers find it difficult to respond without coming across as defensive. Understandably they seek the help of communication professionals to get across a difficult or unpopular messages. This of course is often dismissed by their critics and those in the media as PR and Spin. An attempt to show the organisation in the best possible light and make bad news sound less so.
The communication gurus will say this is just fire fighting and what is required is a communication strategy that builds relationships and trust ,engages and preempts, informs and contextualises. Managers can do it but until their skills are developed there is a need for more communication staff. Hence all those new communication officer posts ranging from £26k to £49k .
Developing trust and engaging with the local community is very important and communication professionals can help managers and members do this better. The same task needs to be undertaken with the internal audience to turn them into ambassadors for the service/ organisation. Unfortunately what all to often happens is that the focus is on PR and managers and members expect communication staff to come up with the messages rather than the best way to get their messages across to different audiences. Sometime organisations can become preoccupied with getting their message across forgetting this is a two way process and of course as every communications officer knows there is always the risk of shooting the messenger.
Local authorities do need to get better at communication but appointing a lot of communication officers is a short term fix . In the longer term it's about a change in culture, a change in the way those in authority behave and when we say managers must have good communication skills being clear we mean be able to engage with citizens,service users and staff.
Blair McPherson form director of community services , author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk