“What we need is a narrative.” “We should be telling more positive stories.” “We don’t shout about what we do enough.” If you’ve worked in a comms team you’ll have heard this kind of thing in many a meeting. But if you work in local government you’ll know that telling your story well is easier said than done.
by Julie Waddicor
Cheshire Police put a really good post on Facebook on Easter Saturday. If you missed it, it read “Handy info for parents. It’s against the law for children to be up eating chocolate before 9am on Easter Sunday ;) Have a very Happy Easter from everyone at Cheshire Police.” 17,000 shares. Loads of interaction, all responded to. Good work.
The police often do social media really well, and it’s partly because they have some very good, witty people looking after their channels. But I think it’s also because the police have a clear story to tell. They prevent and solve crime. It’s a simple, meaningful and easy to grasp premise. The NHS has a clear story too. They make people better. These are both positive concepts that the majority of people want and understand.
So, what is local government’s story? Errr...it depends which council we are talking about, and that’s part of the problem. Counties, districts, mets and unitary authorities have always done different things, but nowadays there is more variation than ever in the activities of local authorities depending on their political colour, leadership and direction as an organisation.
So do we provide services? Well yes, but sometimes indirectly and in lesser amounts. Libraries? Sometimes, but we’re often asking communities to do a lot more themselves. Schools? Not really, and not at all by 2020. Public Health? Yes, but most people think that’s the NHS’s job (it’s health, right?). Social care? Yes, but in a very different way to that which people are used to again, and those who aren’t in contact with the system think it’s the NHS. Roads? In some cases, but it depends on the council. Bins? Ditto. Clearly Huston, we have a problem. Public perception of our story could very easily be: “So, what you get depends on which council it is and they are doing less anyway? Remind me why we need local government again?”
I’ve been working on our annual communications plan recently, and have spoken to the most senior officers and politicians in the organisation about our narrative. Without prompting, three asked themselves the question of what our fundamental story is, and all three gave different answers. The reality is that local government, in most cases and as a whole, doesn’t really know what its story is, and that makes telling it, on any channel, really hard.
Does our lack of a clear story actually matter to residents? I think it does: they still have to pay council tax, and they should know what for. And while people don’t really care which council does what, they do care that we are (collectively) an official organisation in a position of authority that gives correct and trustworthy information.
So how do we fix the problem? What is our story? In these changing times, our key messages are:
- The only constant is change. Councils have changed from what they were five years ago, and will keep changing. It’s not very satisfactory, but it is a really important concept for all stakeholders to understand.
- We deliver, every day, on the ground. We do, and we need to constantly demonstrate that across our channels. This isn’t press releases (or their digital equivalent) or just the big strategic stories: it’s the bin men up at 4am every day, the social worker who’s just finished a shift in a kids home, the librarian who just made a lonely person’s day by chatting about the weather and yes, even the Comms officer who spent two hours with the local knitting group understanding what information they want and how best to give it to them. Think of it as ‘Our Day’ but all day, every day. Talking about what we actually do (and yes, in a planned and strategic way so it makes sense and isn’t a stream of consciousness) builds a picture. Of course there are caveats: probably don’t talk about services that you know are going to change for the worse in the next few months. But do talk about ones that you commission as well as those you deliver directly, as it’s still residents’ money. What you will deliver will change, but a well landed point 1 will really help.
In reality, people know that things in local government have changed and will continue to do so, but they generally don’t know what they are changing from and to. We don’t either. But we can engage better, particularly digitally, by clearly stating that our story is one of change and delivery. Get the delivery stories out there every day, and get people with a natural tone of voice and an affinity with social curating your channels, a bit like an old fashioned editor. We don’t so this in my organisation yet, but we should. Perhaps then we can start making jokes too. How about this: “Did you hear the one about the binmen? No? Good, it was rubbish...” Cough. I’ll get my coat.
Julie Waddicor is Campaigns and Internal Communications Manager at Staffordshire County Council
image via Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum