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Blog: why should we prioritise our politicians?

I’ll be honest with you – local politics used to baffle me. Upper tier, lower tier, counties, districts, unitary authorities, combined authorities…don’t even get me started on parish and town councils! Did you know there are 333 local authorities in England, 32 in Scotland, 22 in Wales and 11 in Northern Ireland? That’s an awful lot of councillors for us professional communicators in local government to work with. And let’s face it, for many of us, working with them can be a significant challenge.

And so, as someone relatively new to the world of local government communications, I knew that the most recent 2022 Future Leaders session was going to be a cracking learning experience for me.

Julie Odams, Assistant Director of Communications and Customers at Derbyshire County Council hosted us at County Hall in Matlock, in a beautiful building that was formerly Smedley’s Hydropathic Establishment, one of 25 hydros in this historic town. Sadly, we were down in number thanks to a few holidays and a London tube strike. But for those of us who made the journey to marvellous Matlock, a thought provoking day of learning was in store.

Julie planned a packed agenda of sessions and speakers, covering subjects including the pre-election period, shifting from tactical to strategic communications, settling in with a new administration, and the psychology of working effectively with senior leaders.

It was fascinating stuff that sparked ideas and discussion among the Future Leaders cohort.

For me, some of the most valuable parts of the day involved the Derbyshire councillors. The Leader came to talk to us about what he values in his relationship with the Communications Team. This prompted conversation about relationships, trust and reputation, and the value of reporting, which I found particularly interesting (spoiler: they do like that weekly comms round up and do read it!).

I’ve already made some suggestions to my team as a result, and had superb feedback on it within a week!

Also a great experience, our practical session involved developing a comms plan and briefing for two real-life examples, which we then presented to two Derbyshire councillors. It’s fair to say they gave us a grilling when we presented our ideas! This really gave me food for thought. Their challenges helped me better understand what they’re at the council to do – represent local people. It’s an experience I’ll always bear in mind in future, to help create robust messages that land with our audiences.

And so, I am going to get better at prioritising my politicians. I’ll view their opinions as opportunities to learn and improve my comms strategies, and I will nurture those relationships for mutual advantage.

What else did I take away from the day?

  • Watch out for councillors wanting a big cheque for a photo opportunity suspiciously close to an election.
  • Build brilliant relationships and make people feel special.
  • Ask your leaders what’s keeping them awake at night and help them solve those problems.
  • You don’t have to stop being tactical to be strategic.
  • There’s no point in being strategic if you’re not then going to put that strategy into action.
  • TikTok is changing popular culture and you do need to embrace it.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of good skincare.

Helena Hornby (@HelenaHellie) is the Campaigns and Internal Communications Manager at Staffordshire County Council and on the Future Leaders 2022 cohort

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