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Common comms – coming together during Covid

Yesterday Alix Macfarlane, Andy Allsopp, Ben Knowles and I represented LGcomms on a panel for the House of Commons’ first virtual Comms Academy with the Communications Network, which connects practitioners working in the House of Commons; House of Lords; bicameral teams and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

The session, hosted by David Rose, Alice Holmes and Maev MacCoille was the first of a series of daily virtual Academy-style events this week with guest speakers and masterclasses for the Communications Network, which has around 200 members across Parliament.

The topic of conversation was how local government communications teams have responded to the challenges of the pandemic; local democracy and public services, and the impact on teams.

Alix began with an introduction to the impact of the pandemic on teams from her experience from within the authority (Brighton & Hove City Council) to have cases 3-8 in the very early stages when individual cases were reported. She also spoke about how LGcomms has felt the pressures of the pandemic and how networking continues to be key for members. Andy talked about the partnerships that had arisen and strengthened in Essex, with politicians, and the private and public sectors coming together. Ben spoke about the challenges and opportunities of forming a new team during a crisis, whilst also being new to an organisation in Hounslow, and the internal communications and staff engagement mechanisms established; and I rounded up with an overview of flexing and adapting a Modern Communications Operating Model to meet the needs of both response and recovery phases in Leeds, and the use of e-comms and social media listening to respond to local issues and needs.

Whilst we all spoke individually from our own experiences, there were some obvious themes and consistent approaches which emerged during the course of the hour-long conversation.

Everyone on the panel had changed either their team structure, model or the way they responded as a result of the crisis. Culture, both within teams and more widely within organisations and partnerships, was a key feature of both success and individuals feeling valued as they worked above and beyond. Flexibility and adaptability were key, particularly as the situation continued past what would have traditionally been seen as a crisis period to encompass not only emergency response; but a return to ‘business as usual’.

Some positives and good things had arisen, such as increased collaboration with partners, MPs and councillors; and a real sense of unity and team spirit, with everyone in it together. The value of communications had been seen, with additional resource pulled in either through internal redeployment of colleagues; or funding for more resources.

Staff wellbeing, ensuring colleagues took leave and regular breaks, and increased opportunities to talk were critical; and the situation had given colleagues, particularly managers who would normally have left personal issues at the door or put on a brave face in the office, the opportunity to be more honest about how they were feeling; with a real culture of trust, support and looking out for each other.

Although the last few months have been challenging within local government communications, we recognised that there were also opportunities that had arisen; lessons being and to be learnt; and chances to consider those things that have stopped that should remain stopped; started that should be continued; and to work together to establish a new normal rather than return to everything that used to be considered ‘the norm’. We have been invited back to a further session later on this year on the theme of lessons learned which we will share the reflections from again. Until then, keep up the amazing work happening across the country in towns, cities and regions; and above all, stay safe.

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