By Andrew Hadfield-Ames, former LGcomms National Secretary
Change is never easy and after the most recent Local Elections in May, there will have been dozens of councils that have changed political control across England, with many others no longer having a single majority party.
This can be especially difficult culturally for those authorities that may have changed administration for the first time for many years – although those seeped in a regular transition face a different type of challenge in decision-making or experienced walk-outs even throughout the election term.
When there is such a change of political control at a local authority, Communications teams need to embrace the uncertainty. One astute son of a Head of Communications compared it to the children’s TV programme ‘In the Night Garden’: like Iggle Piggle bobbing about the big ocean on his little boat.
LG Comms held a seminar to share some of the main lesson learned. It was a Chatham House rules session so all comments have been anonymised:
Relationships: Establish new and maintain existing relationships
Many of those communications colleagues who have recently undergone political change talked about forming relationships quickly – or building on existing ones. Some had already had the foresight to directly engage while they were in Opposition.
This may have been to work on cross-party briefings or joint media statements, but either way this had established themselves as an impartial figurehead on their specialist area of expertise, rather than being overly associated with the previously administration. approach, possibly on a cross-party issue.
It was also remarked that the new Opposition – until recently in power – knew where all the problems were buried – and could therefore expect far more scrutiny of specific communications activity, particularly online and via social media.
Others highlighted the need to be close to the Chief Executive Officer (and Monitoring Officer), to help them provide support and advice to the new Leader who will be forming their Cabinet and wanting to communicate the process for appointment. It is also helpful to get insights from your Chief Executive about what kind of thinker your new Leader is, how they like to work and what makes them tick.
Review what you are doing
Everyone knows the maxim that ‘Perfect Preparation Prevents Poor Performance’ – or similar alliteration. And there is a degree of research and planning that can be done in advance of an election. Such as manifesto mapping and horizon scanning for any alignment or obvious policy conflicts against the existing Corporate or Communications Plan.
Equally, the importance of being flexible with new political masters – to go with the flow and adapt to a new landscape is key. Through a better understanding of a new leadership’s priorities, it may also be an opportunity to be more creative and to take some calculated risks with certain techniques that may not have been previously given permission to explore.
By re-setting the comms agenda, it is possible to actively revisit media protocols or develop new campaign plans, proactive comms teams can demonstrate change that is more in line with a new administration’s way of working and help get across their new vision.
And while the council may have new political masters, its important not to forget the old incumbents – while there are responsibilities which apply to the administration, communications teams are there for all councillors.
Resources: Look after yourself and your wider team
Although it is easy to think that this point is linked to the famous Ministerial note left by a predecessor stating there was ‘no money’ left – which can be equally apt at a local level. But just as paramount, when going through the change process, is to look after yourself & your comms team.
Change can be very unsettling to senior and junior colleagues alike with the temptation being to take it all too personally. Colleagues who were sharing their wisdom suggested that they speak to your neighbouring councils or a fellow peer to keep perspective.
Equally, there is often some light at the end of the tunnel – or a new direction to seek solace from. For Example, a new Corporate Plan or Place Strategy – with the prospect of a new Comms Strategy aligned to this.
Risks: How to mitigate early teething issues
Many colleagues said that there were some early misunderstandings – in terms of what is appropriate for communications activity shortly after a new administration being formed.
Others said that they needed to bring up to speed Cabinet Members on a whole range of issues. By being able to take a walk in the new Executive Member’s shoes then Officers can avoid the risk of overload.
Mistakes do happen, there will be some early misunderstandings as you work with new political colleagues. If this does happen, and it may well do, it is important to deal with it quickly and be aware of feelings on all sides.
And finally… be part of the solution: Help tell the new story
A clear lesson throughout the seminar was for Communications teams to help tell the new story for the administration.
There is no need to panic or be overtly defensive about the past, but to help the new administration to explain their new ideas and priorities.