GOOD NOTES: Words of advice for local government comms teams preparing for a change of administration

We’re in the middle of the post-election period in local government when power shifts.

New brooms want to come in and make a mark and the old certainties have gone.

Often a new administration or new Leader is a time of turbulence for the council and none more so than for the head of comms and the comms team.

If its a change of administration, the opposition are now behind the chair in the Leader’s office.

This can be a tricky time as often the opposition have railed against the comms team for being ‘spin doctors’ or the ‘mouth piece’ of the administration.

Actually, local government communications is one of the most tightly regulated and scrutinised areas of communications anywhere in public relations.

They are not answerable to the Leader but to the Chief Executive. Their loyalty is to the council not the political party. Often their jobs will be politically restricted. So, they can be a member of a political party but they cannot campaign or make public shows of support.

The team will also be governed by the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity. The UK Government version governs England while a cut-and-paste near identical versions govern Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It can be a tricky time, but it is not insurmountable.

As a senior local government communicator for eight years there was two changes of leadership, a new chief executive and an administration kept in power by the casting vote of the Mayor and the vote of an independent.

Words of advice

Here are some crowd-sourced words of advice.

Debra Savage:

Do a First Day Brief which emphasises your impartiality and what you can do for them, to get their message across.

Kate Pratt:

“Be prepared to prove yourself all over again. Prove you are non-political, prove you will give them the same service you have their predecessors, prove they can rely on you the same way any leadership could.

It takes time.

It isn’t something that happens overnight.

It can only happen by doing it.

Again and again and again.

Remember they don’t know you. They don’t know what you think, what makes you tick, what you believe or where your loyalties lie. Stress – and if necessary bluntly – that your loyalties lie with your organisation, that you work for and serve the public whoever makes up the political leadership.

Remember you do know what you are doing.

No matter what anyone says, or has said in the past. It is a new start and your job is to advise and help even if you think the new lead member for roads is a complete moron and only interested in driving fast in his brand new Range Rover when you are trying to promote cycling.

Along with this one is they are new. They will probably not know what they are doing. It is your job to help them know what they are doing (preferably without them realising they didn’t know before) even if you think they are as thick as two short planks and trying to explain communications policy is like trying to teach a two year old how to read.

Be prepared to have things you have done in the past rubbished.

They don’t mean it personally, they just want to show they are better and the first way to do that is to slag off what came before.

That favourite video you were so proud of, rubbish. That excellent campaign to promote cycling, rubbish.

And don’t expect them to come up with something better.

Their advice will probably be “just be less rubbish” until point 1 and 3 are covered and some time has gone past.

Smile and congratulate them (even if it makes you want to puke).

And if you can manage it, say you are looking forward to working with them. They have just been elected, they are on a high, they think they are demi-gods. Don’t be the one to burst that bubble. It will be burst soon enough by the realities of life.

Give yourself time to mourn.

A load of work, people, colleagues have just become less important in the grand scheme of things. It is OK to mourn that. It is OK to sit in your car and not want to go into work. It is OK that your morale is in the toilet and you can barely look anyone in the face without wanting to scream: “Aaaaaargh you don’t know what you are doing, why the hell are you in charge now?”

It is all OK.

But remember, it will get better over time.Ruth Fry:

Ruth Fry:

Have a written protocol that explains who you quote and when (eg portfolio lead for x) and who gets invited to photo calls (particularly in multi member wards – I found an ‘everyone is invited but the date is set so if you don’t show up we’re not rearranging’ policy best).

And if you can rustle up even a quick and dirty ‘annual report’ showing how that cycling campaign they’re slacking off actually reduced air pollution and saved money then that will help.

Know the rules

In addition to knowing the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity for your home country also take a look at your organisation’s constitution which sets out the elected member and officer relationship and a load of other things.

It’s useful to know the chapter and verse of what you can and can’t be expected to do.

You’ll need some skills as a diplomat to advise and guide them in the right direction.

Picture credit: US National Archives

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply