it’s a great time to do what we do

by Will Mapplebeck

This is a great time to be in communications, a brilliant time to be doing the jobs we do.   

I'll explain why in a minute, but before I go on I don't want to downplay what a tough time many of us have been through.     

In hard times, communications is often the first thing to go, viewed as an expensive luxury next to the real job of providing vital services to vulnerable people. 

That means many of us have seen our jobs under threat, our roles reviewed and our working practices change. Before I did this job at Newcastle, I was on a temporary contract which sometimes rolled over month-by-month, so I know all about uncertainty. 

So perhaps today doesn't feel like a golden age, but I think there's never been a better time to be in comms - because of the new challenges we face.    

Let's start with the basics, we live in interesting times. Whatever your political colour - and I'm studiously neutral - things are edgier than they were when everyone was fighting for the centre ground. We have the first coalition government since Lloyd George, and seeing the daily trade-offs needed to keep it on track is fascinating. Politics is back.   

For more evidence of that look at the current political knife fight across the Atlantic. It's the first time since the era of Reagan and Carter that there has been such an ideological gap - two different visions of how America might look.  

Ideology is back - once again 'clear blue water' separates the two big parties - and the central narrative, whether to spend your way out of the gloom or keep the books balanced until the rest of the world recovers, is a fascinating one.     

How does that affect you, slaving away miles from Westminster? Well the great thing about being in local government comms is that we see the 'trickle down' of this public conversation every day - particularly at budget time. Politics seems more interesting to people again, because in hard times they see its effects bite that bit more. 

I'll give you an example, last week I helped communicate a consultation on changes to council tax benefit across Newcastle. We're doing this because Government has changed the rules and wants us to manage the benefit locally.    

We asked thousands of people which groups should either not qualify for benefit any more or get less. Because council tax benefit affects people's 'brass in pocket' we got many more responses than usual and I'd bet we got a lot from people who don't usually get involved in political issues.   

I believe that tough times equal greater political engagement and that's good news for us as communicators.   

And as the Government pushes the localism agenda and it's fondness for 'bottom up' solutions we find ourselves in the vanguard of local government's new role as an enabler not a provider.    

How can we inspire our communities to come up with their own answers? How do we engage the people we need to run community based services, what role do we have in communicating a sense of civic pride? How do we change the old paternalistic model and stop people from thinking that the council will always be there?   

For example, how do I persuade parents across Newcastle to apply for temporary traffic orders so they can close their streets and turn them into play areas for two hours a week? It happened in Bristol, leafy Bristol with a politically radical culture, but how do I make it work in the East End of Newcastle?  

The last big challenge is in the method of delivery. The decline of regional media means many of us now have to think smarter about our messages and the amazing growth of social media presents us with challenges unheard of a few years ago.  

We're fighting a far more complex battle for control of the message and instead of a small band of journalists we have to engage with a much wider public. Everyone can and does have a say on the services we deliver. And social media also gives us the opportunity to engage directly and on a one-to-one basis.

That’s a pain in the behind at times, but one thing is for sure, it makes our jobs more interesting and more challenging.

Fascinating times, and big challenges. Now we have to make sure we rise to them.    

Will Mapplebeck is a Senior Communications Advisor at Newcastle City Council

photo credit