Welcome to the first of 10 special opinion posts on the biggest issues and opportunities facing communicators in 2017. It features the thoughts of 10 top communications leaders, from across the sectors, providing a fascinating glimpse into what we can expect – for better and for worse – this coming year.
collated by Darren Caveney
“It would be easy to feel crushed by the challenges the industry is facing, from fake news, political upheaval and post truth, through to a lack of capacity, crippling finances and fewer opportunities to become a head of comms (certainly in the public sector.) If 2016 has taught us anything it’s to expect the unexpected and NEVER say never.
But don’t despair this is a fantastic time to be working in comms and PR. The pace of change and innovation has never been so sharp providing us with more exciting tools to use than ever before. Despite claims that we’re all ‘sick of experts’ I find that nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to communications. Skilled people who can provide sage advice to organisations are still much in demand. The head of communications role has never been more important corporately and we should be proud of that.
A lack of comms people moving beyond communications into the most senior roles is a worry though and unlike other management disciplines we can sometimes end up being typecast within these set boundaries. As a profession it’s time we started rising to that challenge and using all of our nous at the very heart of operations to prove that the skills we can bring are vital to all aspects of running successful organisations.“
Ross Wigham, Head of Communications and Marketing, QE Hospital Gateshead
“The challenge of how we help break down barriers to sharing and collaboration across government is key for me. I’m currently working with departments to understand how we can use common technology solutions to make civil servants’ lives easier and save money. In 2016 we launched a number of ‘communities of interest’ and I’ve been amazed at the appetite out there to engage and really learn from what peers around government have been doing. I hope this will thrive in 2017 – collaboration is key and as communicators we have to create the environment to let this happen.
My other big hope is that the improvement in internal communications in government continues, accelerates even. Since we launched The IC Space, three years ago this week, I have seen the discipline grow in both capability and reputation. Communicators in government are moving across disciplines, recognising that they need to build their capability in all fields to adapt and deliver. Our profession is better for it and I hope we see more of it in 2017.”
Victoria Ford, Head of Engagement for the Common Technology Services Programme - A Government Digital Service programme in the Cabinet Office
“Brexit, Trump and global warming... budgets, elections, possible change of political administration, new chief executive arrangements... some things affect us all, some only locally. Whatever the challenge, none of us can tackle it alone. Fortunately, communications teams are among the most robust, resilient and resourceful you can find.
I hope I can hang on to as many of my team as I can. I hope budget cuts will give us more work to do, as opposed to reduce the very people who can help us tell the real stories around service changes. I fear we are not immune, but we will do everything in our power to ensure we are best equipped to face those challenges. Rather than sheltering in the background we must be bold, step forward and face the challenges head on.
Now more than ever, we need to invest in developing our teams. There should be a continuous circle of development and review to ensure teams have all the necessary skills and the confidence to deliver organisational solutions. This means taking a critical look at our performance, seeking out opportunities to train, learn and improve. We need to make sure we are at our fittest technically and professionally. Doing this means that not only will we be better equipped to face the challenges ahead but we are also more likely to retain good staff who will appreciate development opportunities. In Warwickshire, we have recently taken the team through an excellent account management training session and media relations refresher course, both provided by the CIPR and hugely valuable in helping the team to think about balancing customers' needs (both internal and external) and organisational priorities. We have reviewed our social media activity and we will be training teams to improve their use of social media.
In these straitened times, we can either crumble or embrace the opportunity to shine and be our best. We can't change some of the things which will happen but we can influence how we tackle them and fuel our resilience to meet those challenges.”
Jayne Surman, Communications and Marketing Manager at Warwickshire County Council
“From my perspective it's the idea that public policy agenda gets completely hijacked by Brexit, when there's lots of interesting and important stuff to do to make the UK a fairer, happier and healthier place. How do those in public affairs and communications attempt to get voices heard at a national level when media and national politicians obsess about one thing?
Also, there's a real need for a renewal of local democracy. Too many of our places suffer from local election turnouts of less than a third and local government's legitimacy is questioned more than ever by communities. I'd expect turnouts in May to be among some of the lowest ever. So how do we use communications to encourage more involvement in civic life? How do we get people to volunteer, stand as councillors or take part in litter picks? Is it unfair to ask comms to do the 'heavy lifting' on this? Is it a cultural change, only solved by giving people real power on the ground?
Finally, this year is likely to see more trouble for the regional press and more mergers and closures. What do we do with the resource that used to go on media relations? Is it easy to get press officers to do other stuff and do they want to? In my experience this was hard work - but that depends to a degree on the individual. Also, how do you persuade elected members to stop concentrating on the local printed press and look to visual and social media?”
Will Mapplebeck, Strategic Communications Manager at Core Cities UK
“I think the biggest challenge we face is how we help to support our organisations to improve and maintain trust while making even more challenging decisions around service reduction and funding. It is something we’ve been talking about for a few years, but I think it has yet to actually be recognised as a serious issue. I am hoping that we will move away from consultations on cuts to constant collaboration and engagement with residents on service redesign.
There is still confusion over things such as STPs as we are not getting our narratives right and speaking in a language that actually resonates with people. I think that is widening the divide between those who understand and trust us and those who don’t. Communications professionals are under even more pressure and I worry that we end-up focusing on the quickest and easiest way to communicate rather than the most effective sometimes.
My hopes are that some fun might also come back into the work that we do! With every challenging decisions on service delivery, and constant internal change it is hard sometimes to look up and see how great the job is that we get to do and what fun we can have with it. Digital platforms allow so much more creative space to engage and communicate in ways that we’ve not had before, and sometimes risk holds us back from fully exploring them. So I hope that by the end of 2017 it hasn’t all been about the big challenges, but also it has been about having some creative fun.”
Eleri Roberts, Assistant Director, Communications, Birmingham City Council
“It's an absolute no-brainer that all parts of the public sector need to work more closely together. We need to make the limited pots of cash work harder for local people. We need to give them the confidence that we're working with them, and in their best interests, in the most effective and efficient ways possible. We need mutual trust - between all the partners at the table and with local people.
So the two-pronged challenge is:
Actually doing the working together bit properly - no squabbling about whose territory something falls into, but remembering that this is about improving people's lives and helping people when they need it (not to mention bringing our staff with us on this sometimes rocky and unsettling journey)
And then making sure the people we serve understand what we can and can't do, and why, and what part they themselves can, and need to, play in this brave new world.
You'll hopefully have noticed that good communications and engagement are seamlessly woven through all of this. My hope is that the skills our professions can bring to this huge transformation will be recognised, valued and fully embedded in the work that lies ahead.
My fear is that when we speak truth to power, it won't always want to hear it.”
Sally Northeast, Deputy Director, Organisational Development Communications and Participation
“It’s probably going to be a big year.
Devolution, Cuts, Mayors, Public Service Reform.
Brexit, Trump, Putin, Isis.
Post-truth, post-fact, post-reason, post-apocalyptic…
It’s hardly an original thought of mine that we live and work in uncertain times; nor that uncertainties don’t make communicators’ lives any easier.
But times of uncertainty are also times of opportunity. We humans have a knack of making meaning of things.
So, in terms of hopes for 2017, I hope that as government nationally and locally comes to terms with the challenges of Brexit, Public Service Reform, devolution and mayors, we can - through progressive changes in our governance and institutions - start to deliver the reformed, place-based thinking our customers need.
And I hope that - working more closely with partners in both public and private sectors – we can rebuild comms teams to share best practice and develop more strategic, digital and innovative behaviours. And I hope we can focus on the customer as well as the big outcomes, building trust through what we do, not the big announcements.
In terms of fears though; I fear that the challenges won’t be met. I fear that in the whirlwind of headlines we could lose sight of the customer and those who rely on what we do, as we try to manage the big issues. And I fear that if we don’t make the changes we need, comms teams will carry on trying to do more than they can, with demands rising and funding falling, and the pressures and workplace stresses growing.”
Eddie Coates-Madden, Head of Communications at Sheffield City Council
“I always start the New Year feeling bright, optimistic and excited about what the working year ahead will look like. I love the fact that in my job I can plan for approximately 40% of what we will be doing but have very little control over the other 60%, that tends to be reactive and responsive – I thrive on not knowing what is coming my way (and if you throw a crisis or two into the mix, I get quite giddy!)
My main challenge for 2017 will be resources. I know for some Heads of Communications there is a significant fear that they will have a reduction in resources/staff this year, however, I am quietly confident that I will thankfully not be in that position and I feel for those that are. We have a very small team of 6 for a £1.2bn organisation employing over 14,000 staff and covering around 660,000 patients. My Chief Executive ‘gets comms’, therefore values the contribution the team makes and understands the value we can bring in the current climate in health when every journalist wants to report on the ‘NHS in Crisis’. My hope is that during the year we can still, as a team, meet the growing demand and expectation that is placed upon on us to continue delivering exciting and innovative communications. My fear is not delivering and losing the good reputation that the team have worked so hard to achieve.
My second challenge for the year is social media. I have set the team a challenge to increase our followers/likes by 40% (they did 30% last year so thought I would stretch them a bit). As a Health Board we are now interacting more with our staff and patients than ever before through social media. This is exactly what we want. We get to hear first-hand what our staff and patients are saying and have meaningful conversations with them. So my hope this year is that we will engage at least 30% more people through social media than we did last year. My fear however is that as social media is 24/7 (and the Health Board is 24/7), how do we manage this? At the moment I rely on the good will of my team to help me monitor and respond to social media over the weekends and in the evenings, but how long can that remain sustainable? Due to the nature of our business we sometimes receive posts which are really sensitive and with upsetting comments. Can these be left over the weekend? My first challenge comes back into this – resources – we do not have the resources to provide a 24/7 social media presence. Are we raising the expectations of our patients that we cannot maintain? This is a conversation that I plan to have with my Director and CEO shortly and I will update you as to where we go with this.
Finally, my last challenge will be to produce more digital content. I am really proud of the way my team took on this challenge last year they have taught themselves how to film and edit and it is clear that our staff and patients love this form of communication. Unfortunately, internally not all of our staff has sound cards on their computers (about 50% don’t) and they are not allowed access to YouTube on their work machines. My challenge and campaign is to convince the people that need convincing (IT) to allow open access to YouTube and install soundcards for all staff. I did say last March that if I had not been able to secure access for all staff by April I was resigning. Thankfully I did not specify what year.”
Karen Newman, Head of Communications at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board
"I'm a fearless person (if you ignore my wide-berth approach to rollercoasters and peas) so this was a harder post to write than I first thought.
"However I do fear our comms noise is being drowned out by the cautious and fearful against the backdrop of bad times in the NHS - having to be so overly tactical with our messaging is energy-zapping, but also our expertise could be taken over by the I-know-bests.
"As for hope? We're going to have less money. But my team will have two more people to help us do the things. So I'm hoping for a really creative year where we push our boundaries for platform and content that delivers and show the world what good value looks like."
Joy Hale, Head of Communications at East of England Ambulance Service
“It goes without saying that it's a time of unprecedented uncertainty and change within local government, a perfect storm of major budget cuts, rising demands for service and diminishing confidence in public institutions.
Facing all this, it’s tempting for communicators to keep our heads down and press on with "business as usual" but we should be bold and embrace every opportunity to do things differently.
The need for public sector communicators to be involved in strategic planning has never been more acute. We have to ensure our teams are equipped to rise to the challenge by sharpening existing skills and developing new ones.
This new landscape means we need to take a broader, outward-looking approach, seek out best practice across all sectors and learn, innovate and connect. We also need to improve our understanding of and engagement with the communities we serve, many of which face huge personal challenges on a daily basis.
There's also the small matter of the local government elections in May...watch this space.”
Caroline Binnie, Communications & Participation Manager at Falkirk Council
Many thanks to our 10 communications leaders for their insight, honesty and inspiration for the year ahead. I imagine every single one of them would be a pretty great boss to work for.
Talking Heads 10 x 10 will be back next month with a fresh new discussion – ‘The inside track - advice on getting a management job in communications.’
Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of creative communicators ltd
image via the State Archives of North Carolina