“Go to London,” Alan Partridge once said. “I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated.”
Arriving at Local Government Association HQ in Smith Square for sign-in at the the annual Academy extravaganza, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had at least avoided the former.
Filing into the main auditorium, I consulted the programme for the day ahead, and was impressed by the number and variety of sessions. Speakers were offering insight and advice from government communications to campaigns and evaluation, diversity and inclusion to wellbeing and resilience. Even though I was many, many miles from home I recognised friendly faces from the world of public sector comms, including my colleagues on this year’s LGComms Future Leaders programme. We clustered together front left of the room, awaiting the initial session.
(What would be the correct collective noun for a group of Future Leaders? A ‘hubbub’? A ‘brouhaha’? One for the Academy to consider with the 2023 intake.)
In the first hour of the day we heard from Lee Cain, a former Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street who once called for a “dramatic cut” in comms staff across government. He explained, among other things, how in his view the messages Westminster politicians and the London-based press think concern the public often do not – it’s a bubble, and it hinders comms making a marked impact. He cited the MAGA movement in the United States and £350m for the NHS painted on the side of a bus as examples of impactful comms. Few could disagree with him – they have indeed left their mark.
He was followed by Kim Sklinar, a UN volunteer from West Yorkshire. She spoke powerfully about her voluntary work in West Yorkshire working to co-ordinate support for the local Ukrainian expat population since Putin’s barbaric and unjustifiable invasion of the country at the start of the year. As a person of Ukrainian extraction herself, Kim’s compelling presentation caught the attention of all those present, and reminded us of the tangible impact joined-up regional comms can make to successfully managing a developing emergency situation.
The full programme remains online, for anyone interested, and it was pleasing to see external audience members’ attendance ably facilitated by the hosts. Geography and cost ought not to be a barrier to accessing events such as these, in this day and age.
A particular highlight for me was grabbing five minutes over a break-out coffee with Nana Crawford from the British Red Cross, who had just entertained the room on the panel for the diversity and inclusion session. I was particularly interested in her team’s decision to draft and publish a blog post on white privilege which subsequently caused a predictably tedious, not to say venomous, social media and comments section backlash. Over a brew we discussed some charities’ decisions to seemingly willingly enter this space, standing up for themselves and their causes and pushing back against the naysayers – the RNLI being one such recent case. It’s a fascinating shift for a sector so long perceived as placid and accommodating, to a fault.
Later I took leave for 20mins and went for a walk in the neighbourhood while the autumn sun set. I passed 4 Millbank and imagined the work inside as Sky News, ITN, the BBC and others operate round the clock to cover our democracy.
I turned right, past the illuminated clock face of Big Ben’s Elizabeth Tower and over Westminster Bridge. I paused and read some of the comments on the tens of thousands of little red hearts on the wall where the Thames footpath meets the perimeter of St Thomas’ Hospital. Each heart represents one person of the 150,000 who died in Britain during the recent pandemic. I reflected on my own small part as a local government comms professional working in Greater Manchester at the time when the virus raged, with my own hometown the single most infected place in the UK. Another world.
I then turned 180 degrees and took possibly the best photograph I have ever taken on a smartphone (see top of this blog).
Lambeth Bridge then back to Academy, and up on stage with my fellow Future Leaders to collect my graduation certificate. I found it genuinely moving to be surrounded by such support from the LGComms community and having learned so much from each and every person on my cohort. Every one is exceptional, with skills and experience in different facets of comms. On every occasion when we have gathered together for a session these past 10 months, their knowledge and insight has had me marvelling and more often than not feeling somewhat out of my depth. But that’s imposter syndrome for you.
Drinks on the balcony upstairs then away, certificate safely in my backpack. That was me, proving Alan Partridge wrong again: I was leaving London, neither mugged nor unappreciated.
Jimmy Smallwood, Communications Lead at DCMS and LGcomms Future Leader 2022