Social design, systems thinking and communications

Social design, systems thinking and communications

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.


I work as a fractional Chief Operating Officer (COO), consultant and advisor. I created the B3 framework® for company building and I also write a newsletter called Build for leaders who care about creating resilient and sustainable businesses.