Seeing the wood for the trees – why effective communications should be at the heart of your council’s plans

By James MacCleary, Co-Director, Breakthrough Communications

This story took place before I became a councillor. A number of my neighbours took to social media in uproar about two trees being felled at our local play area. The mature ash trees in question had been there for years and provided the only shade in the play area. Then one day, seemingly without warning, ‘the council’ felled the trees and residents were furious. Our town council received a torrent of criticism, with outraged parents voicing their anger and confusion at such a senseless act.

Of course, what had actually happened is that the local district council had taken the decision to fell the trees because they were suffering from Ash Dieback and there was a risk that branches could start to fall off, which would have been a serious danger to children using the play area. Once the community heard this, as well as the news that replacement trees would soon be planted, the situation soon calmed down.

But the damage had been done. It left the impression that ‘the council’ had messed up somehow. Whilst the trees were of course the responsibility of the district council, the town council had crucially fallen short in its communications with residents, before, during and after the event. A clear, public explanation in advance of the intention to fell the trees and the reasoning behind it would have likely prevented any reputational damage and secured public consent. In the event Town Council staff were forced to waste countless hours dealing with irate residents who do not differentiate between different tiers of local government.

This kind of story isn’t unusual. At Breakthrough Communications we frequently hear from Clerks who find themselves having to react to events that may not even be of their making, or they’re finding it a challenge to get a message across clearly or build meaningful and sustainable engagement with their community.

Yet some parish and town councils still view communication and engagement as some sort of ‘add on’, or something that’s just ‘nice to have’, rather than a core part of their strategy and day-to-day operations. Some worry they can’t afford it, others are concerned it’s too time consuming or that it will tie up resources.

In reality, the opposite is true. Not only is it increasingly an essential part of the service you provide to residents, but effective communication and engagement all year round can actually save your council time, effort and money. In a world where councils are trying to function effectively as they can around the huge challenges that COVID-19 presents, effective communication and engagement matters more than ever.

And just as we saw with the Ash Dieback story, most people do not differentiate between tiers of local government. So simply saying ‘it’s not us’ will not work – yours is ‘the council’ as far as many residents are concerned.

We set up Breakthrough Communications to help parish and town councils better connect with their communities and overcome these challenges. My Co-Director, Daniel Purchese, and I have more than 30 years’ combined professional communications experience under our belt. We’re also councillors ourselves, so we really ‘get’ the unique communications challenges parish and town councils face.

From our work across the country, we know that there are many practical steps all councils can take to communicate even more effectively with their communities.

Here are our 6 Top Communication Tips and Ideas for getting started:

  • Start by putting together a communications strategy, which in turn should inform your communications policy. It is a great opportunity for Member buy-in and it enables you to get a positive narrative about the council across to residents and get ahead of both good and bad news. Crucially, ensure you link your council’s existing aims and objectives to clear and measurable communications objectives.

  • Ask yourself, and your Members, what are the top three things you want residents to know about your council? Do your existing communications reflect these things?

  • Print and digital both matter. Finding the right mix of traditional print and modern digital communications channels for your community is crucial to getting your message across over time.

  • In a world of digital noise, video cuts through and builds positive engagement like no other. From live-streaming your meetings to social media, to holding a live Q&A with your Mayor/Chair, or even just getting a Councillor to record a one-minute clip about their role, there’s lots you can do.

  • Residents want to hear from you. Join many other councils in setting up an e-Newsletter service to reach lots of residents in one go.

  • Remember, proactive and regular communication with residents through digital and print channels is a wise investment of time and money to prevent avoidable future costs and reputational harm.

Find out more about how councils like yours can take a proactive approach to effective communication and engagement by downloading your free Council Communications Checklist at www.breakthroughcomms.co.uk/clerks/.

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