And so another good communications person leaves the public sector. But after 10 years what have they learned?
by Ian Curwen
After more than ten years in local government – the majority of those in communications – I have recently left the sector.
When I started in local government, there was no Twitter, Facebook was only for college students in America, people didn’t blog, and local newspapers were your most important stakeholder.
Whilst local newspapers are still important and continue to be a major part of the communications professional’s day to day work, it’s fair to say that the landscape has changed dramatically.
If I say that one of my first tasks when joining the communications team at my district council was to contact our press release distribution list to check whether they would like us to continue to fax out press releases rather than email them (they did want this), you’ll appreciate just how much things have changed.
Dan and Darren have both blogged about the positives and negatives of working in local government communications much more eloquently than I could, so I won’t retread this ground. But I did want to give some of my own reflections on my time in the sector.
Firstly, I’ve enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I genuinely believe there is no better part of the organisation to work for – the scope and variety of the work really is second to none.
During my time at my council I have worked on projects as diverse as the opening of our new building (a PFI, so perhaps best not discussed in much more detail now), to the closure of our civic hall; from protest rallies to peaceful protests; from major national issues like the storage of nuclear waste to hyper-local issues like the location of litter bins; as well as sensitive and challenging issues like deaths on our land and one major and infamous national incident which will never leave me or the rest of the community.
I’ve worked with a range of people including the local MP, national politicians, celebrities, subject matter experts, Buckingham Palace, journalists from across the world (from Nippon TV to Al Jazeera), amongst others.
Secondly, the face of local government communications has changed, is changing and will change again. Successful local government communicators are those who recognise this and are keen to feel their way through these changes, learning as they go. If the idea of a press officer feels antiquated, it’s because it is.
Others have blogged about the range of skills needed in local government communications, but suffice to say that the list is probably already out of date. But the good news is that working in the sector in what will inevitably be a small and reducing team, means you will have plenty of opportunities to develop your skills.
As the senior communications professional in my organisation, I was responsible for a range of areas including public relations, media relations, internal communications, marketing, branding, design, consultation and engagement to name a few.
As well as the on-the-job experience I picked up in these areas, I also benefited from some excellent training opportunities including undertaking a management diploma and my CIPR diploma – both of which has proved useful, from both a knowledge development and networking point of view.
Whilst I am thoroughly positive about my time in local government, the experience I’ve gained and the skills I have developed, it does feel like the tide is turning, especially for small district authorities.
The last couple of years in local government have been almost entirely devoted to communicating difficult messages relating to budget cuts, at the same time managing budget and staffing cuts in my own team. Like so many of my experiences in local government, it has been a useful one. But more years of further cuts now don’t feel like as much of a learning experience, but simply another opportunity for people to beat us.
So it was with a heavy heart that I left local government; but I know it was the right time to do so. I am now looking forward to forging a new career in the nuclear sector, using the breadth of skills, experience and connections I have developed over the last ten years – conscious that there are very few places I’d have been able to get this.
To all those skill working in local government communications, I wish you the very best of luck. One thing that is for sure is that those who innovate are those who will succeed.
Finally, I’d like to thank Dan and Darren for all their support and encouragement over the last few years.
Ian Curwen is a communications professional in the North West.