By Andy Allsopp, Chair of LGcomms
This year will be my 22nd in a row when I’ll have led on council budget comms.
I’ve written strategies and releases and staff comms on everything from a proposed 14% increase (yes, really – and there were sighs of relief when the ask was reduced to 11% before it was passed) to zero, but never ‘commsed’ a council tax reduction, although I got close once.
This year does not look like one of the easier sells, and I say that working for one of the most financially stable councils in England. The entire sector is under unprecedented financial strain, worsened for me by the gloomy commentaries on which authorities could be next to declare a Section 114 and effectively, bankruptcy. The storm clouds have already gathered.
The art of the exercise in 2024 therefore, is getting good at sharing bad news.
One of the new debates for us a profession (within councils) is around how you define what is, and isn’t, a statutory service. This first cropped up in the Autumn and is much trickier than would appear at face value. It was even asked of one comms director about their service, who did exactly the right thing in pointing out that as they served ALL of the council’s statutory functions they were, de facto, also statutory.
As ever, there’s opportunity within the challenges. Or, actually, a driver, for a brand of comms which is straightforward and honest, and may even build credibility, even if the news is bad.
You could do worse check out this excellent LGC article (subscription required) from our Exec Committee member Monica Floristean at Telford Council from last year for some pointers on strategy. https://www.lgcplus.com/services/comms/monica-floristean-how-councils-can-communicate-bad-news-30-10-2023/
We all fear change and loss more than we celebrate gains or success – so understanding and empathising with how difficult news will land is key.
Equally, remembering that engaging effectively with those residents and communities impacted by change is half of the battle. This is a different set of skills to core comms competencies (my view, and I know it is shared by others) but this is exactly the time to bring them together, whether ‘owned’ in comms teams or not.
2024 also began with another sort of storm – a real one, named Henk – which although inevitably meant a much busier start to the year the anticipated, actually cheered me up. That’s because it reminded me that we’re actually indispensable, and not just in times of crisis. AI alone isn’t going to be able to cope with communicating what people need to know and do in the event of a major flood or a power outage, or if services are going to impacted by financial constraints – but people who know how talk to communities in ways which work will. That’s us. And 2024 will hold plenty of opportunity for us to prove our value.