When a council runs out of money, it’s not just a finance issue it’s a comms issue too. Here, an experienced local government communicator talks you through how her team handled it.
by Kate Pratt
A ‘Section 114’. Words that strike fear into the heart of local government officers everywhere.
Bankrupt, broke, gone bust scream the headlines.
And for communications teams there is the horror of being thrust into a world of numbers, complicated local government finance and the world of revenue, capital, treasury management, public loans, interest rates and more things we, let alone the public, can’t comprehend.
A smorgasbord of acronyms is laid out before us. Think working in local government for 20-plus years means you know all collections of random letters there is to know? Think again.
In Slough, the Section 114 at the beginning of July was not a surprise. Our financial issues had been well documented locally for a couple of months with scathing audit reports, budget gap numbers growing by the day, the resignation of a director of finance.
But no one had wanted this particular axe to fall. But fall it was going to. Slough was to become only the third council in the country in living memory to declare a Section 114.
Use the advance warning to own the story
I had around 10 days warning. 10 days (if you included a weekend) to put in place a comprehensive external and internal communications plan and get everything ready for 114-day.
Externally in some ways was easier. Internally we were coming off the back of a whole council restructure and 18 months of covid; staff were sore, exhausted and desperate for a breather – one which we were now taking away.
Luckily, senior staff needed no real persuasion to get the comms right.
I am sure I am not the only one who fully believes we should be first with the news – good or bad – should own our story, no matter how bad it is. We should be open, honest – really nothing hidden, give everything to them. And they agreed.
Comms was now at the forefront of the issue, front line, in all the meetings, part of the decision making.
There was no time to feel heady about their belief in me. There was no time to feel gratified when external advice on media relations aligned perfectly with what I had said. There was certainly no time to consider what might be if we got it right – only what it could be if we got it wrong.
Get your timing right
Timing was everything. No it could not happen on a Friday afternoon (bit of a bun fight over that one). Yes members had to be briefed beforehand – but not too far beforehand to allow for leaks. Yes the official documentation had to go to everyone formally before it went to the media. Yes staff should hear it first and see it all as well.
11am on Friday 2 July.
The actual comms actions weren’t anything we hadn’t come across before.
Narrative, key messages, press releases, all user emails, website updates, social media, Q&As, interview requests, interview prep, briefing key reporters the night before, clearing diaries to make way for potential interviews, arranging drop in sessions for staff, follow ups on key queries, online forms for those with concerns.
But the enormity of the topic, the level of accuracy needed and the absolute need for secrecy in the run up made the pressure that much more.
I had help. External help. Which I could have been offended by; after all they didn’t say anything I hadn’t said and who knew Slough better than me?
Be brusque in your planning
But when I watched them drag my CE over the coals in a mock media interview as part of media prep, being every nasty, snarky, rude, know-it-all journo we have ever hated, I was grateful to them. Even if given permission I am not sure I could have been that rude to my boss!
The day dawned and as time ticked on, as things went out in order, on time, to the right people, as requests for interview came and were done. It became clear the mountain of Percy Phizzy Pig Tails, flapjacks, chocolate rolls and other things that would make our public health team pale in horror, were not as vital as we thought they might be.
Yes it hit the national newspapers – even The Guardian which prompted my mum to text me to check I still had a job – but the plan had worked.
We had owned the story. We had told them about it. We had been open and honest. We hadn’t hidden, pretended it wasn’t happening, hoped no one had noticed.
We had been brave, put ourselves out there, said “we have made mistakes, we have not been good enough”.
Of course in the world of local government and social media, that high lasted until one particularly erudite twitter commentator stated we should fester in our own p*** and s***. Back down to comms earth with a bump!
It isn’t over, of course. It is the story locally. And when the impact of the financial difficulties become changes to services a whole new level of hell will be unleashed.
But while we continue to plan for full council meetings, votes of no confidence, petitions, endless social media posts calling us some rather unimaginative names, it has been a lesson for all of us here.
Comms can make a difference for the better even in the darkest times. But only if people in power listen to us.
Kate Pratt is group manager for communications at Slough Council.