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the accidental communicator: who owns comms?

by Leah Lockhart

A few serendipitous events lately have focused my mind on issues around corporate communications and generally and in local government specifically.

Not just what it is, what it’s seen to be but who owns it. 

Some background: I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the unnerving and confusing end of local government ‘talent management’ and, while I’m paid to give housing advice and help write homeless prevention strategies, I’ve actually been doing work around increasing use of web and social media in the public services sphere for a little while now.

I landed this unofficial role because I’m keen, able and willing and not because I have formal communications or PR experience (and presumably because I don’t put up too much of a fight about not having a role, remit or anything like appropriate pay- I’m taking one for the team.)

As someone without formal comms training under my belt, accidentally gradually moving into the strange staid area that is communications in local government has me flummoxed and not just a little frustrated. 

As an outsider coming in, PR and corporate comms can seem to complicate the straightforward issue of just telling folk what is going on. CIPR defines PR as

the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

Whew! That’s heavy. ‘Planned and sustained effort’ sounds like manipulation of fact and of people. What’s wrong with being straight up? Something happens and it is what it is. So why can’t we just pass on the information?

The issue of protecting reputation (or establishing and maintaining goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics)- and who the appropriate people are to do the protecting- is being debated with the rise of the democratisation of news and information sharing creeping into councils and I’m very interested to see how comms teams deal with it all.

So far I feel a resistance on the part of comms teams to embrace and run in multi-platform circles (that issue is a whole new blog post in itself) so all these mini comms machines (for example staff and local citizens tweeting, local bloggers) are running ahead without them and without much, if any, formal consideration of PR techniques or strict journalistic guidelines. Can it all work together?

I’m Jane Public among a group of communications and media professionals and so I have a healthy scepticism about corporate comms. From mainstream news outlets to local news items issued by large organisations, I feel I’m being fed engineered and candy coated messages that some middle aged white guy in a suit decided I need to know about. So I dig a little deeper for the information I take in looking to bloggers, independent outlets and chatter online to strike a balance and allow me to (I think) make a more informed decision about what I feel or believe about a story.

The majority of people I know operate in the same way to seek out and digest news so I think the value of corporate messages communicated in a traditional way is sinking, especially for local government bodies not moving in new digital platforms. I think digital platforms force a sort of transparency because of its immediacy and because of all the other online sources of information a council has to contend with. But again, there seems to me to be apprehension on the part of corporate comms bods to get stuck in to the issue which flummoxes me, Jane Public. 

So what’s the deal with a reluctance to modernise and move with the times? Communications is a broad church.

Why is there a gap in using or wanting to use new platforms and methods and people? Why are communications broadcasts not holistic and inclusive of all platforms?

How is it not exciting to reach customers in different ways and to build on professional knowledge?

Why does it seem comms professionals consider being more open, honest and immediate is contrary to protecting reputation when really it’s the opposite?

What kind of monster catching up exercise will some comms and media teams need to do because working over multiple platforms is not being considered in everyday work now?

What’s the problem?

I know I’m exposing a pretty high level of naivety here and I admit this post is somewhat oversimplifying a complicated set of communications professions.

But I’ve entered this formal communications accidentally and as someone who does not fully understand the need to engineer information when it’s so easy and transparent to just tell it like it is. 

I’m interested to know how communications colleagues feel about amateurs creeping into their field. Comments welcome.

Leah Lockhart is a local government officer.

This blog first appeared on and is reproduced under a creative commons licence.

Picture credit.

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