The impending election for a new leader of the Labour Party is perhaps a timely reminder that change comes in many forms.
by Andy Carter
If you’re a public sector communicator, it’s likely that your organisation is going through some kind of change right now.
I’ll hazard a guess that it’s probably because of financial pressures caused by budget cuts.
Hopefully, that change is happening from a stable base. Your chief executive, and, in the case of, say, a local council, the political leadership have been the same for several years.
I suspect that makes it slightly easier to cope with (hopefully anyway).
Of course, if there has been some political change too, perhaps the plan to reorganise has been torn up as a result of a new set of priorities from a new leader or cabinet.
The reason I think the Labour leadership election is interesting is that, if the polls are to be believed (and they are, aren’t they?) the party could be heading in different direction.
That’s likely to mean new political priorities and a new narrative for communicators to get to grips with. They will have a different story to tell.
I should point out that I’m using the Labour example just because it’s current and something everyone is likely to be familiar with. It’s not because I have a view about the party.
When I was head of communications at Leeds city council, we experienced a change in political leadership. Leeds went from a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition to a Labour led executive.
It was an interesting time to be the head of communications.
As you’ll know, the election process doesn’t allow for a ‘handover’. At 10pm when the polling stations close, one political administration is in charge. By 5am the next morning it can be entirely different.
It meant, from 9am on the Friday morning, our communications team had a new story to tell – one that reflected the election pledges the new leadership had made.
It may be that you will find yourself in a similar position in future.
Here are some thoughts which may help:
Stick close to the political opposition when they are in … opposition. Get to know their policies and potential priorities. Make yourself known to key councillors. The best communications teams shouldn’t really be surprised by anything. Don’t be in the position where you are caught off-guard if the election results turn out differently.
Try and get some time with the new leader the very next morning. Agree with him/her what needs to be communicated first. Think internal as well as external.
Then, over the coming days, work with the leader, and any new cabinet, to develop a new narrative aligned to their political priorities. In crude terms, ask the leader what he/she “wants to be famous for?” and start from there.
Get the leader and senior councillors to meet your team(s). You’ll need to establish the credibility and the professionalism of the communications operation as quickly as possible.
The sad fact is the new political leadership is the same one that, in the run-up to the election, was most likely criticising the communications team and threatening to cut it.
Make sure the new leadership understand that comms is a science, not an art. We are not a ‘support function’ anymore. Our work is vital. We enable and drive change.
Be visible. Ask for weekly meetings with the leader. It’s really important you have ongoing dialogue. Review the team’s work together. Forward plan. Keep your communications grid up to date.
From my own experience you may also need to provide the odd reality check or two.
It might be necessary to remind the new leadership more than once that they are no longer in opposition. In my case, that included educating the new cabinet about the tone and language they wish to use in communications.
And, don’t be frightened to ask your new leader for help to co-ordinate. New portfolio holders are likely to be very keen to talk about their responsibilities. Believe me, four of them trying to make key announcements on the same day is not ideal. You may need to ask your leader to referee!
Andy has led communication teams for a number of local councils and a university. He now runs his own consultancy business.
Image via Flickr creative commons