Future Directions in local government communications

The key communications challenge facing local governments in the 21st century is to work out how to embrace and harness new communications technologies, according to La Trobe University strategic communications lecturer Kevin Brianton.

Kevin has a long association in and around local government communication, stretching back to 1986 when he began as a local government journalist.
His communication work continued with many local governments in Victoria, where he worked as a public relations manager. He then consulted to the Municipal Association of Victoria and the Victorian Local Governance Association as well as being former editor of LG Focus.

Kevin believes that while many organisations and individuals are taking advantage of social media, the sad reality is that few local governments have embraced or have even considered using it as part of their communications.

“It can be used in many different ways and the results can be outstanding.

“For example, when the United States President Barack Obama was re-elected, and wanted to thank his supporters, he did not issue a press release or call a conference,” noted Kevin.

“Obama used the micro-blogging site Twitter, and immediately gained the record as the most accessed tweet, with 22.5 million people looking at it.

“Obviously, local governments do not have the same impact as a US President, but in the broader world of communication, people are skating away from these traditional methods.

“There is an emerging younger demographic who simply won’t see ads, as they no longer read papers.”

Kevin commented that it was time to open local government to new communication tools such as social media.

“Some local governments have dipped their toe in the social media water, but few have looked at it as the real future of communication,” he said.

“Facebook is also now one of the most used forms of communication for people under the age of 30, and quite a few people over the age of 30. Yet most local governments look at it with something akin to terror.”

Kevin went on to say that that social media was more than just a communication tool; rather, it represents a sea change in the way government conducts itself.

“Social media shreds the idea that a level of government can dictate a conversation with its community,” he said.

“Far too many local governments set the agenda, arrange a meeting, see who turns up and think they have engaged in community consultation. It is a lazy and unresponsive solution.

“Social media promises to change the rules. It means a lot of different voices, but it also means that local governments will see a lot more debate.

“I don’t imagine it is going to be a comfortable approach, however, every local government needs to make the effort to set up Facebook or other social media sites and start responding to community concerns.

“Local governments have made some steps with the development of their websites as most councils can see the value of having on online information. Social media, unlike the web, requires active management, not sitting back – it means entering into a dialogue with your community. You have to talk and you have to listen. To be effective, it requires a lot of work.

“Social media is also cheap, simple to operate, and can gain results quickly.”

Kevin said that, in contrast, many council communications remained in a deep and often expensive rut and needed to embrace new ideas and approaches to move ahead.

“There is a sameness to local government communication, a real lack of energy which hurts any real efforts to communicate,” he said. “Yet local governments are all different. They all have different communities, diverse challenges and various opportunities. Communications departments should be thinking about the best way to talk to their community.

“Some communities will work better with face-to-face communication. Others will embrace newsletters. Some prefer meetings, and many like a combination. It is not a one size fits all situation.”