Grace, grip and goals

According to Alex Aiken, these are three fundamental qualities you need as a leader. As Executive Director for Government Communications for the past eight years, and over eighteen months of those during the unprecedented and ongoing impact of the Covid pandemic, I think he might know what he’s talking about.

On a (very rainy) Tuesday morning in September, I made my way from Leeds to London, to meet Alex at Whitehall; the annual highlight of the LGcomms Future Leaders programme even under normal circumstances, but for me and the rest of this year’s cohort, more so given this would be our first time meeting each other in person after seven months on the programme together virtually.

It’s impossible to reflect on the occasion – and Alex’s three words – without thinking about the effect Covid has had, and continues to have, on us personally and professionally. 

We’ve seen an incredible amount of grace and grip during the pandemic. In my team here in Leeds, we’ve reflected a lot on the toll the pandemic has taken on our personal and professional lives (including the difficulty to separate the two when working from home), but also how it has made us more aware and empathetic of individual lives, circumstances, backgrounds and views. Never before have we had such a focus, and rightly so, on equality, diversity and inclusion – not just in terms of communicating and engaging with our communities, but also the diversity of our workforce that is fundamental to us doing this well.

The pandemic has also prompted many of us to rethink our goals and what’s important to us – again not just in our personal lives, but as organisations serving our local communities.

“Do you have a comms plan?” was the first question Alex asked us all as we sat down that morning. Pretty simple stuff, you’d think. However, it was clear from the conversation that followed, that with so many competing priorities and demands as we begin the road to recovery from Covid, approach an uncertain winter, continue to face enormous financial challenges, whilst also getting back to business as usual, that for the majority of us, we’re all struggling to nail this.  

In Leeds, the one thing our team unanimously agreed on after the first wave of the pandemic, was how brilliantly and effectively we had pulled together to achieve what we needed to achieve. Despite how frantically busy we all were in those first few months, we had never had a clearer goal; and this, dare I say, made our job easier.

During our day at Whitehall, we were lucky enough to hear first-hand about the enormous amount of work the government communications service continues to deliver in response to Covid, and importantly how they continue to test, evaluate, learn and improve: The rapid response team’s handling of misinformation and disinformation on social media, and pointing the public to factual trusted sources; the role of the national resilience hub comms in simplifying, amplifying, localising and targeting messages to increase awareness and influence behaviour; the national security communications team’s tough job of handling the media and trying to ensure balanced stories; and the importance of using insight and evaluation to inform future planning.

The role of central and local government communications in response to the Covid pandemic has undoubtedly been crucial, and our expertise in our respective local authorities is valued possibly more than ever before because of this.  Turns out we’re pretty damn good at what we do. The challenge for us now, with so many competing priorities, is to agree and be clear on our goals so that we continue making a big impact, where it really matters.

Stephanie Sewley  is Communications and Marketing Business Partner at Leeds City Council and part of the 2020-21 Future Leaders Cohort.


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