Social design, systems thinking and communications

SimonGeneral4 Comments

Brighton and Hove Council‘s John Shewell’s PR Week column caught my eye today.

He argues that the role of communications teams in councils needs to change radically, advocating a shift from the predominant broadcast model of council communications to a fully-fledged approach based on engagement:

Communicators need to explore this model of communications and reconfigure their operations to capitalise on the vast network of social goodwill that exists to build strong and credible campaigns.

I agree some of John’s points about the need to take a broader systems-based approach to delivering behaviour change. Many of the objectives that are set for communications teams demand a broader focus than can be delivered through just the normal communications mix alone.

But I’m not convinced that it’s a logical progression to say that communications teams need to make themselves obsolete as John suggests. It’s more complex than that.

For a public sector organisation to effectively deliver societal change, a broad and inclusive approach is vital. That approach needs to involve a wider range of stakeholders than traditionally it has done – embracing the co-creation ethos that John so passionately advocates.

But are communications teams the right people to be pushing this agenda alone?

No – they have a real role to play and need to upskill and adjust to a more mutually balanced relationship with their publics, but this fundamental shift in public service isn’t about communications teams morphing into something different in a desparate attempt at self-justification in the new environment.

That’s just too simplistic an argument to make for me I’m afraid.

The wind is clearly blowing in the direction of nudge theory. Inherently this demands a different approach to organising and mobilising public sector resources to deliver changes for the better in communities.

And there’s clearly a role for communicators in this. As the guardians of an organisation’s relationships with publics, communicators have the skillset across multiple different engagement channels to influence organisation-public relations.

That doesn’t mean they need to take over and over-extend in the way John’s suggesting. They need to understand a systems approach to social design as John puts forward and may need to act as advocates or proponents of this approach.

But for it to be a success this approach needs to be hardwired into an organisation’s structure, processes and most importantly people. It’s not an agenda that communicators can push alone.

Taking the broader view, I have to conclude that there are other things that the majority of council communicators should be doing. Driving up professional standards, increasing and demonstrating the value of communications in public service delivery and acting as genuine strategic counsel to senior officers and politicians are among those things.

Improving the profession’s performance in those areas is the way to continue to develop the role of communications in public service, not trying to push in a direction that for most councils will require more fundamental change than one profession alone can achieve.

4 Comments on “Social design, systems thinking and communications”

  1. I agree Simon, great work. I’d like to see our local Council support open, transparent conversations where all stakeholders can either participate or simply peruse. Too often I think Councils avoid being a part of or moderating open discussion, on social media platforms at least, and instead minority groups of non-supporters of their initiatives get a louder voice than need be. At least, that’s what I’ve observed here.

  2. I read John’s PR Week piece too and like the way you’ve taken it on here Simon.

    For me, it’s always a case of keeping the best of the old but continually adding in the best of the new.

    There is an increasing communications role for virtually all council staff to play in involving the public in service design/provision. Especially now that the social web has put one-to-many and one-to-one-to-many communications at their fingertips.

    But there will also always be a different and more ‘traditional’ communications task for the small elite of decision-makers that doesn’t really relate to service design: to explain how they are spending our money.

    Yes, the latter is better as a conversation and can involve input from the public but, essentially, the immediate task is to inform. And that looks more like the sort of a task for which a traditional comms set-up is built.

  3. Pingback: Communications heads need to become alchemists | JohnSHEWELL reputation+brand strategist

  4. Getting the brown-nosing out of the way; I thought John’s piece was provocative and interesting and there’s much I also agree with in Simon’s analysis.

    I don’t believe any thoughtful communications professional disputes the need to move away from an announcement-led culture that’s about shovelling press releases out of the door and responding to every letter in the local newspaper that’s incensed a member. It’s dispiriting to see how much of the public sector is dominated by this thinking. There’s the same 24 hours in a day that there was twenty years ago, yet there’s a spiralling number of TV channels, newspapers, websites, advertisers, social media platforms all competing for my attention. I can’t even take a leak in the pub without staring at an advert on the urinal.

    We’re at war for attention – resorting to increasingly strident means to grab the eyeballs of our customers/residents/voters for a moment – buy this, don’t eat that, visit this, stop doing that – and the end result is an increasingly alienated, weary and disengaged public.

    Where I think John and Simon both need to be clearer is what this means, because it’s broader than social media, thought that’s important. It’s surely about using the tools at our disposal thoughtfully, to think about what we’d like people to do differently tomorrow than what they are doing today. We need to put the megaphone down, and start listening to people – engage in a conversation, not a diatribe.

    On John’s blog he likens the approach that many communicators adopt to the old saw about treating the public like mushrooms – keep ’em in the dark and cover them with s**t. I don’t think that’s quite true; we cover them with s**t alright, but we swamp the public with communications because we fail to understand that you can’t communicate your way out of what you’ve behaved your way into.

    Systems-thinking is a good start, but it’s still centered on the organisation. I prefer the focus on design-thinking that both John and Simon allude to. Let’s start – and end with – the customers. Let’s think about how to engage, converse with and delight them.

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