This week we meet John Shewell, Head of Corporate Communications at Brighton & Hove City Council. His interview gives a really interesting insight into the work of a senior communicator within a unitary council in southern England.
John makes some interesting observations about how the new comprehensive area assessment will lead to changes in the way council communicators deliver campaigns, as well as giving an insight into how Brighton & Hove City Council is integrating social media into its communications mix.
What’s your current job and what does it involve? What are you responsible for?
I am the head of corporate communications at Brighton & Hove City Council. My role basically boils down to promoting and defending the reputation of the council. This means providing advice to the leadership of the organisation in terms of managing the council’s reputation, setting out a clear direction for building the council’s reputation, and making sure that the communications team remains focused on this purpose. I am ultimately responsible for my team’s actions to deliver a successful outcome, and this means having an effective strategy that drives performance.
I also regularly meet with the chief executive and leader to discuss how the organisation is moving and agree a course of action.
In terms of operational responsibility, I have just restructured the team and I’m currently working on centralising communications activity. The new structure will see five units merged into three – media relations, marketing-communications and design services; and all three have a head of service who report to me. I’ve just recruited a former director of Text100 (a global comms agency) to be our new head of marketing, so I’m really looking forward to the next six to 12-months.
How did you end up doing this role?
I applied for the head of corporate communications at Brighton & Hove City Council after seeing it advertised in the Guardian back in November 2007. Before this role, I was the campaigns & reputation manager at the London Borough of Sutton (where I worked for over four years) and led on several major campaigns – one of which I won the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (Local Public Sector) award for best campaign on a shoestring. Before LB Sutton I worked in the private sector. I was at Golley Slater where I worked on clients such as the Army, which was a great experience. And before GS I worked at one of Australia’s largest public affairs agencies called Brumfield Bird & Sandford where I worked on clients in the banking sector, regional and national government, property and also dipped my toes in the lobbying arena. I learnt a lot at BBS and my mentor there was a chap by the name of Paul Turner who was a former political advisor and he taught me a lot (including the art of ‘Australian diplomacy’). But I’d have to say that my biggest inspiration in terms of career support was Paul Martin, the current chief executive at LB Sutton. I wouldn’t be where I am today without his support and continued guidance, and he’s such a great advocate for local government. He’s probably the main reason why I’ve continued working in local government because he inspired me to make a difference.
I studied two degrees – Bachelor of Arts (majoring in media studies) and Bachelor of Business at the Queensland University of Technology – during this time I worked for Nestle in their marketing department and then at Brisbane City Council.
I currently sit on the management committee of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations – Local Public Sector Group and I’m also a full member of the CIPR.
Can you tell us about a project or campaign you’ve worked on that you’re really proud of?
I’d have to say that the project that I’m really proud of was getting Brighton & Hove City Council to agree their vision – ‘city of opportunity’. When I started at Brighton & Hove CC they didn’t have one clear vision and I basically pestered them to develop one. Nine months later and we had one and by the time my first 12-months came round we were signing it off. So that’s been a huge achievement and one that I’m especially proud of.
A close second would be the ‘Take Part Take Pride’ campaign that I ran for LB Sutton. I created this campaign to fit the council’s vision but was given virtually no money to run it. I had to leverage support from partners, build word of mouth and actually get out and about selling the concept to colleagues to get them to back it. In the end, we got hundreds of local residents participating in the event and lots of good coverage. The following year BBC London radio came along and held live broadcasts over three days to promote the event. I was mentally and physically drained as I did virtually the whole lot from strategy to execution – and only with a handful of others pitching in – but it showed me that you can deliver quite a lot with a bit of imagination and hard work. The icing was winning the CIPR award for it.
Tell us a bit about Brighton & Hove – what are the council’s priorities?
Brighton & Hove is a fantastic city with an established place brand built on fun, festival, diversity, creativity, architectural legacy and cosmopolitan free-thinking lifestyle. It’s a city full of ideas and passionate people. There are about 260,000 people living in the city and we’ve got one of the most highly qualified adult populations in the country with nearly half the working age population having the equivalent of a degree or higher. The city has 32,000 students at two universities. This means our residents are very much interested in current affairs and take an active interest in their community, which the council plays an important role.
Our top priority is steering the city through the recession – we’re doing everything we can to shield the city from the recession and position the city to benefit when we come out of it. We’ve been running a very successful campaign called ‘Be Local. Buy Local’ (www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/buylocal) and our two initial objectives were to get 100 businesses signed up to the campaign and 1000 residents backing it by March of this year. I’m pleased to say that we exceeded those targets and the campaign is really taking a life of its own now. If you walk around parts of the city all you will see in shop windows the Be Local. Buy Local campaign stickers – the response has been huge and the media have lapped it up. Polly Toynbee wrote to us congratulating our efforts, so we’re really pleased with the way it’s going.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing local government?
I think the single biggest issue facing local government is the economic situation. The government has decided to spend its way out of this recession and to do that it has borrowed heavily, which is creating a budget deficit of immense proportions. The FT reported recently that because of rising real spending on debt interest payments, tax credits and social security benefits, a freeze will mean real cuts on schools, hospitals and other politically sensitive programmes. Failing that, taxes will have to rise by an average of £1,250 each family for the next six to eight years. The other option is to cut public spending. Personally, I can’t see the public agreeing to a tax rise in these tough times and independent surveys show that there is no appetite for further stimulus measures. This means local government can expect an even greater tightening of the public purse; therefore we’ve got to prepare for this now by being more innovative and disciplined; and we’ve got to get used to making some very tough choic
How is the new comprehensive area assessment (CAA) process changing the way your council communicates?
Brighton & Hove City Council has an excellent track record of working with other partners – it’s famous for being collaborative – and given that we’re a city that attracts a lot of people, we’ve already been working with a number of partners to promote the city. We just got our Place Survey results back and we did really well on nearly all our indicators and in some instances we’re bucking the national trend. So I think we’re well placed to benefit from the CAA, but I do think we will need to work a lot more closely with our local partners in terms of comms planning and coordination to promote the place. I’m currently setting up a working group with all the Local Strategic Partners’ heads of comms to discuss how we can work together. I think the next logical step is for more ‘place communications’ with partners, which the local authority should be taking the leadership role.
How is the growth of social media affecting your job/team?
Immensely. Social media is all around us now and in a city like Brighton & Hove in which the digital industry is regarded as amongst the best in Europe we just cannot hide our heads in the sand. We’ve dipped out toes in the water with twitter, facebook and youtube – but to be honest we’re a long way from cracking it. We’ve just drafted an online marketing-communications strategy which will enable us to exploit social media in a more focussed and authentic way. One of the key issues we’ve got to get to grips with is that the ‘old’ model of funnelling information through a ‘mediator’ (journalist) is gone and now we’re into a ‘mashed up’ style of comms in which the online community has the same, if not more, access to information that we do. The online community (which is just about everyone today) doesn’t have to rely on the top-down model of comms anymore – witness some of the stories that have broken recently and look where they came from – bloggers! You don’t really need to read the papers to find out the latest news anymore, you can follow bloggers and Twitter is going to make this even more interesting. News will be constant and more democratic. For councils (and any organisation for that matter) this is a huge challenge that we’ve got to get to grips with now.
At the council we’re in the process of mapping out our social media eco-system in the city to find out where people go, what they talk about and what influences them so we can start having a more meaningful dialogue with them. This also means that everyone in the team must understand social media and how to create conversations on the likes of Twitter etc. We’ll be training everyone from media officers to internal comms on social media. We’re also exploring how we can use social media as part of our internal communications activity. The best thing about social media is that it’s about two-way communications, which is what we should always be aiming for.
What advice would you have for young PR professionals wanting to work in the public sector?
Do it. The public sector is a great place to work. Having worked in both private and public sector, I can definitely say that the public sector is one of the most challenging and satisfying places to work. But it needs more talented and ambitious young people who want to make a difference – particularly to the lives of people and the way their organisations work. I’d also suggest they join the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Local Public Sector Group so they can benefit from some excellent training like ‘second steps’ which helps young PR professionals understand the ‘politics’ of public sector better.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I am an Australian who arrived in the UK in 2001. I live with my partner and three year old son in Brighton. I also sit on the management committee of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (Local Public Sector Group).
Next week it’s the turn of Stephen Parkinson from Preston City Council to tell us more about his work. If you work in public sector communications and would like to be featured in my weekly interview blog, drop me a line or find me on Twitter.