I spent most of last week in Leeds at the LGComms conference and just wanted to capture a few thoughts about this.  I also did a lot of tweeting from the conference as I decided to do that as a way of taking my own notes and that worked very well for me – will be doing it again.  Also enjoyed the feedback from the folks who were not at the conference!

Not surprisingly the conference mood was very focused on the recent cost cutting announcements and the knowledge that the next few years will be very tough for the Public Sector – and even more so for Communications which is not a front line service and can expect to be looked at very vigorously.  There was some interesting content around some of the larger public health and safety campaigns which obviously save money in terms of behavior change – but on a slower timescale than is needed to justify the expenditure in the short term – and also on the reputation campaign as a way of valuing communication activity.  However even with these more positive stories the mood was definitely focused on how to save costs.

If you are interested then I have written up the sessions that I attended:

There was an excellent presentation from George Eykyn, Communications Director, for Communities and Local Government.  He stayed very topical and talked about the implications of the new coalition agreement  and the fact that all costs are within scope for cuts – and that communications must, along with other services, demonstrate strategic value and efficiency.

Of great interest to me was the fact that he was clearly drawing a line be communications and engagement – and in the context of a localism agenda coming out of the new government.  He also noted that the new government is far more social media savy and that he expects this to be a big theme.

Possibly the most specific point he made was the fact that Council newspapers are on the hit list with the idea that print should, where possible be abandoned.  Guess the debate is all about what possible means.  Finally – he was very clear that the commitment to open data is substantial and he was accurate in seeing this as a massive culture change that will resonant through government once it is set free.

One of the best sessions was on “Total Communications” – the panel was excellent and have made an effort to actually coordinate what they were saying (thank you panel) and they developed a really good case for partnership working which would use the best of each partner as a way of saving costs.  One of the barriers to doing this discussed was actually branding – or rather poor understanding – which can turn this kind of partnership working into a logo wrestling match.  However with strong leadership and a desire to create a local ‘brand family’ this is obviously an approach that can not only save money but also deliver better results – very innovative if someone can actually pull it off.  And the session highlighted a huge risk – we have a small window of time to sort this out before we will be forced to cut without thinking

The session from Stephen Coleman was fantastic – Simon Wakeman has covered this here – and I will write separately about this as its very much up my street.   The session looked at the changes in communication and engagement that are a result of new technologies and he likened the shift we are currently experiencing to the introduction of television into our homes in the 1950’s – the question as to whether we are ready to use this change is the heart of this.

I also really enjoyed hearing from Gavin Megaw, Director of External Affairs for the  Football League,  who made a compelling case for engagement through football – all very big society.  Dick Fedorcio OBE, Director of Public Affairs for the Met Police was also great – with a really honest assessment of what has and hasn’t worked for them with respect to new communications.  He was very clear that the Police need to use new forms of engagement but that they have great challenges with respect to their understandably embedded command structure.

The only session that really got me grinding my teeth and muttering was a workshop from the COI – it was supposed to be around measurement of Social media but I felt that it really missed the point.  It was trying to fit social web into traditional methods of channel management and really didn’t embrace the underlying potential of social media in terms of community cohesion and engagement – they were still trying to measure broadcast reach rather than impact on communities.  I was also fairly appalled that they thought you had to pre-moderate any content from the public – which is neither appropriate or sustainable in my view.  Anyway – might go and bother them in person on this as I had a chat with them afterwards.

Finally – I was fascinated by the session on storytelling by Tony Quinlin.  I have always liked storytelling as a way of getting ideas and knowledge out of groups that are not comfortable with sharing or communicating and Tony really illuminated why this works and gave real substance to the session.  I also enjoyed chatting to him afterwards about complexity and narrative and would recommend checking out his blog at http://narrate.typepad.com/.  One thing really stuck in my mind:  once a narrative gets a critical mass you can’t combat it with facts – you need to tell a different story

Of course much of the ‘good stuff’ at conferences is outside of the formal sessions.  I had a great chat with Nick Booth of Podnosh – something I have wanted to do for ages – and if you don’t know about his social media surgeries then check them out immediately:  http://podnosh.com/– they have a proper track record for getting communities to make good use of new technologies – something that will be needed if we are going to be forced to make more use of digital.

And this last point is where I end – because my big surprise from the conference was the lack of digital.  At the risk of repeating myself – I just don’t see how the public sector can continue to increase its communications and engagement without making better use of digital and changing the balance in their channel mix between offline and online.  And given this work like Nick’s becomes essential to enskill the public to use these new channels.  Even if you are not of this mind (yet) I was surprised how few of the attendees were online and tweeting etc as I would have thought that getting your head round these new technologies would be a priority for Communications professionals.  This is perhaps a bit unfair and shows my own digital bias – and I know its almost impossible to fit everything you want on a conference agenda.  However I really missed the social media back channel that I get from other conferences and I think the LGComms crowd would enjoy it as well.  I think the degree to which communications in local government has been professionalized over the last few years – but I wonder if it is now making them risk averse with respect to social media – where mistakes are tolerated as long as they are made transparently and with the best of intentions.

So – it was a really interesting conference and I got a lot out of it – perhaps more than I expected.  However I do still have a concern that there was not enough discussion about the real strategic issues – with the exception of the Stephen Coleman session – and I worry about communications happening in a vacuum.
There was a lot of talk about behaviour change – but I am not sure the desired changes have really been thought about. This is not a problem for the Communication professionals though they should be part of the discussion – as per my last post I think this is about a leadership gap – we need a bigger plan folks.

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