By Elizabeth Hughes.
You do media releases – right? You write the mayor’s [chair’s] speeches – right? You put adverts in the paper for shut down notices – right? You do the council newsletter – right?
But what do you actually do all day?
If you work in accounts, planning, parking, the library, water services, consents, IT, human resources and even democratic services – you generally don’t get asked “what do you actually do?”
But if you work in council ‘communications’ then most people really do not have a clue how you fill your day. And to be fair, some people working in local government communications have no idea how they fill their day – they just know that more often than not they’ve reached the end of it without having ticked anything off their to-do list.
Interestingly, most people wouldn’t need to ask what a communication practitioner within the private sector or government does – even if they don’t always get it right. Perception-wise, people tend to say the job is made up of marketing, public relations, advertising or that awful word ‘spin-doctoring’. But for some reason, in local government, the communication role is both widely misunderstood and a mysterious unknown.
This is partly to do with the history of local government and partly to do with some invisible communicator superpowers.
Let me explain.
In 1989, when the modern era of local government began, there was no expectation that councils had any need to communicate with people – although they did provide bits and pieces of information to their ratepayers.
And there was certainly no such thing as a communications manager. This role simply did not exist. (Although some of the bigger ones may have had public relations or media relations officers – they were certainly never called managers – nor were they called communicators.)
In 1988 I was employed by the then Waikato Valley Authority to be an environmental planner/public relations officer. The “slash public relations officer” bit was because they needed someone to talk to school groups about a marvellous flood control scheme. At the time it was seen as a pretty innovative and “out there” position – giving consideration to the idea that maybe people other than engineers might create information for the public.
This was quickly followed by the 1989 local government reforms and 400 local authorities became 89.
Now the [new] councils had to focus on things like – helping people understand the roles of the different types of local authorities that had been created and working on something called ‘openness and transparency’ (linked to LGOIMA 1987). This meant, for most of them, a new focus on what might loosely be called communication, and the need to employ a public information staff member.
Then leap forward to the 2002 Local Government Act and a much greater focus was now placed on participatory democracy. This transformed the way that local government operated and meant there was now a legislative driver to communicate (two-way) and demonstrate that the council is/was listening to their views.
This led to a whole new range of skills required by the communication/public relations person.
And nearly 20 years since the LGA 2002 was enacted, this expectation became not just communications, but about engagement. Now it is about conversations, collaboration, empowerment and responsiveness.
History lesson over.
So – for those who would like to know what your communication practitioner does all day – here is a list of the key skills and roles contained in one standard model…
- media relations advisor, writer, liaison expert and trainer
- brand and grammar police officer
- ‘oops we stuffed up’ crisis manager (and PIM for CD)
- policy, plan and strategy editor and wrangler
- public monitor of the good, the bad and the ugly
- copywriter, slogan and nifty caption specialist
- internal communication content developer, production designer and delivery coordinator (no really – of course the CE writes it all her/himself)
- advertising buyer and data analyst (online, print and radio)
- digital and social media specialist (keyboard warriors with restraints on)
- community research and monitoring analyst
- change specialist – “we’re changing the payroll system next week so might need some help with comms”
- graphic designer and photographer (and archivist of every photo ever taken)
- engagement specialist
- bookings and venue advisor
- project manager (yes really – it is all about communication)
- psychologist (sometimes).
Add to this now:
- Covid and public health specialist.
And the glue that pretty much holds the place together….
So, what do we do all day? Just stuff.