Local government is the poster child for a sector hiding its light under a bushel – and it’s time for it to shine.
Many residents and ratepayers rate their councils lowly. We know that because even the councils say it.
I have checked in on some of the community engagement statistics for various councils, and there is nothing to write home about.
My council is no different from many other local governments that have hundreds of touch points with residents but do not get the recognition they deserve
I think about the relationship with my council and often wonder what goes on at city hall. How does the council and its managers view the role of communications?
Like many other councils, mine is doing a better job on social media than it did a couple of years ago. It posts more to Facebook, occasionally tweets when the local pool is closed, which is helpful, live streams council meetings, and is starting to produce some excellent video.
But I do not recall ever receiving an email update from the council or any return correspondence when I have submitted feedback. I do not receive a community newsletter, and all that seems to lob in the letterbox is the quarterly rates notice.
I am not a prolific user of the council’s services, but as a former local editor I think I appreciate the sorts of activities the council is involved in.
But I lament: why isn’t the council telling me its story? The council must be doing a whole stack of cool and innovative stuff. The council must be providing an array of services that could help me and others plug in to our communities.
To me, this seems to be an incredible lost opportunity. And I know my council is no different from many other local governments that have hundreds of touch points with residents but do not get the recognition for the great work they do – and this is the same for many organisations in other fields.
The Seven Signs of Civic Unrest
In the case of local government, there are some special circumstances. I call them the Seven Signs of Civic Unrest:
1. Lack of strategic vision: Some councils are working in the old way and fail to see how introducing a strategic communications framework can springboard them into new areas of engagement.
2. Lack of resources: This is often quoted to me as a reason why organisations cannot more proactively promote themselves. But most local councils have at least a handful of people in marketing and comms who can be marshalled around any activity if prioritised.
3. Council bashing: It is a national sport. We all have gripes about our council. And some administrations, when under siege, think no news is good news. Councils can also get locked in a negative zone, constantly working to counter the flak or smooth over the latest controversy.
4. Internal politics and bureaucracy: Many council comms professionals totally get the newsroom concept, having worked for local media. But mayors, general managers and other executives can suck the life out of a good idea. They might be conservative and lack a spirit of adventure. Or they are controlling. Or council division and personality politics make proactive communications like walking a high wire.
5. Media fragmentation: Council teams tell me they find it hard to get their messages out through local media today because the local newsroom is stretched, regularly makes mistakes or is adversarial.
6. General cynicism about authority: The Edelman Trust Barometer shows our distrust of traditional institutions is rising.
7. Wariness about social media: Moderating the community conversation is a minefield for local councils who are easy prey for critics and naysayers. It is one of the reasons why council hierarchies wince when comms teams encourage them to go forth and multiply their messages. They see it as dangerous to engage.
If the status quo is not reaping the results you seek, what is the antidote? Surely it’s not to keep doing the same thing. It is time to change things up.
Creating the virtual village square
Most of the council comms people I know have the skills and the nous to create what I call the virtual village square and to become the primary destination for local information.
Councils can reclaim their historic place as the town square for the community conversation instead of just being seen as maintaining some of our essential services like local roads and collecting the rubbish.
Those working in or responsible for communications are already incentivised around the notion because their KPIs are to:
Of course, a DIY council newsroom cannot be entirely “independent”. We still need strong independent journalism to hold our authorities to account. Sadly, the closure of many local papers and their offices has meant communities now lack that – and local media does not have the resources to cover as many events and areas as it did.
For their part, councils can fill part of the void by doing a better job at promoting what is going on in their communities and by providing an open forum for community discussion. This is an unprecedented opportunity because councils have the tools and platforms to reach all residents.
* This is an extract from Stuart Howie's guide to modern comms, The DIY Newsroom.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.