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Have councils lost sight of how to build reputation?

By Simon Jones, Westco Communications

The reputation of local government has been on a slow decline since the LGA started to track views in 2012. Back then 72% of people were satisfied with their council, the latest tracker places it at 64%.

Does it matter?

I argue that reputation isn’t about vanity, it is about influence and the ability to unite your community and staff around a common purpose. Without trust organisations lose their validity.

Our recent communication audits have revealed that there has been a big shift from council communication teams away from running campaigns that are designed to build trust and reputation.

Perhaps there are multiple reasons for this. Many councils (and their communication teams) are dealing with a whole raft of knotty reactive and pro-active issues post-pandemic, not least financial sustainability.

In the latest (2023) LGA Heads of Communication survey reputation was cited as the eight biggest priority. Before the pandemic it was number one.

The other reason perhaps is that many councils do not have an effective Annual Communications Plan and are working week-to-week and month-to-month which means that there is insufficient focus on longer term goals.

Plus, fewer councils are carrying out reputation surveys because of cost restrictions,  therefore there is less awareness and discussion about changes in trust and reputation. Back in 2018, 57% of councils carried out a survey, according to the LGA’s Head of Communication Survey.  The question has not been asked since but anecdotally the number of councils carrying out surveys appears to be falling sharply.

It matters because customer or resident satisfaction, whatever you prefer to call it, should be central to everything that we do.

Cost should not be a prohibitor in the quest for customer insight. These days, especially with the emergence of AI, there new digital tools that allow us to track perceptions over time in a way that is highly cost effective.

Historically, insight still tells us that the reputation of a council is largely determined by 3 key factors:

  • Perceptions around value for money
  • Perceptions around universal services (clean streets, bin collections and parks)
  • How informed people are about council services and benefits.

Alongside this it is important for councils to be seen as well-led with a clear vision for the area and with a strong and consistent brand identity.

Effective communications and engagement plays a critical role in delivering all of these priorities and therefore is critical to building reputation and trust.

At the heart of this we need to be creating and strengthening our own ‘brand story’ which should be the foundation of every organisational communication strategy. Without a sharper focus on building reputation and trust from communications, councils are in danger of losing sight of what their mission in life is.  We are also in danger of weakening the bridge between council and the community that it serves.

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