An empowered communications team equals an empowered community?

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This is a guest post by council press officer and MSc student Adrian Winterburn. He can be reached by email or on Twitter at @adie_winterburn.

Localism means that now, more than ever, local government communications managers need to have a seat around the table at the highest level of decision making. Communications teams will play a key role in enabling and facilitating community building. But council budget cuts means that cutting back on the communications function seems like an obvious option, especially to those working outside of communications.

Do PR practitioners hold the key to successful community empowerment? With their expertise in engaging stakeholders, should the communications team act as the bridge that brings together the residents with the decision makers in the council? When considering why people don’t engage with their council it strengthens the argument that communications departments should lead on this agenda.

Research shows that people don’t trust political institutions, but also they don’t understand the decision making process. So clearly there is a role for communicators to help build trust, but also to make sure people are informed enough to contribute to decision making.

And then there is that question people ask themselves: “why should I get involved? Nobody listens to me anyway”. That is what people think. Tokenistic pawns rather than empowered people. But surely, if we engaged effectively with residents and showed them how they did make a difference, we could reduce that perception. But that is a challenging route to go down, because if we aren’t careful we could end up spinning the truth, which surely won’t help build trust.

So how do we get through to our residents? How do we empower them? How can we convince residents that they can trust us? But also how can we convince senior managers that we, as communicators, need a place on that decision-making table? Because if we are the ones leading on engaging our residents, then we have the evidence, and skills to advice the senior managers how their decisions will be received by residents.

And amid all this confusion there is this other big trend– social media. Surely an efficient way of engaging with masses of numbers? Well not exactly. Sure it has the potential; but it doesn’t have the power to change organisational culture or to convince people to trust their council? Or does it?

I’m a communications officer for Leeds City Council, and in my spare time I studying for my MSc Corporate Communications. I am now writing my dissertation, and I am researching the role of communications departments in empowering residents, and the strengths of weaknesses of using social media for this purpose. If you think you can help me with my research? Or if there is somebody you know who could, then please get in touch.

I am looking for volunteers who work for a local council in a communications role. It doesn’t matter if you are in a management or officer position, just as long as you have opinions on the issues discussed above. You will take part in an online discussion forum, focussing on four topics relating to the issues discussed above. You will need to make at least one contribution to each discussion. Research will take place over two weeks, and I predict that the time commitment will be one hour per week.

If you can help me with my research please get in touch by emailing me at awinterburn5@googlemail.com or tweet me @adie_winterburn

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