The Director of Strategy,
Communications and Customer Service introduced the report and
stated that it provided an update to the Communications Strategy as
well as the Local Government Association (LGA) health check and
action plan implementation. She stated that the draft strategy
would be coming to the Committee in June and welcomed Member
comment and feedback which could be included in that report. She
explained that the LGA had let independent peers look at the
Council’s communications approach, including speaking to
internal and external stakeholders, as well as helping Thurrock to
learn from best practice.
The Director of Strategy, Communications and Customer Service highlighted some of the positives from the report, which included good crisis communications; good stakeholder relations during the COVID-19 pandemic; and a flexible team who were proactive, committed and responsive. She added that the health check had also shown that internal communications had improved since 2017 when the last LGA health check had been completed, and communications were now more campaign-led. She stated that the report also included some recommendations for improvement, such as commissioning a ‘who reads what’ survey to better understand how residents consumed their media and received their information, which would help develop the strategy and provide a deeper level of insight.
The Chair thanked the Director of Strategy, Communications and Customer Service for her hard work on the report, and felt it provided a good level of detailed feedback. He thanked the communications team for their hard work during the COVID pandemic, and felt pleased to see constructive feedback and the accompanying action plan. He stated that in previous years the Committee had invited local editors to their meeting, and welcomed the recommendation to improve the speed of responses and to introduce a more streamlined process. He emphasised how important it was for the communications team to build good relationships with local editors, which could be partly achieved through providing timely responses to their questions. He also felt it was good to see the team were trying new approaches and new ways of working, such as video briefings and the use of social media. The Director of Strategy, Communications and Customer Service stated that some other local authorities provided online briefings for local media, for example when there was a drastic change to a service, and explained that this allowed local media editors to do a question and answer session with service representatives, which could provide a more immediate response compared to a press release. She stated that as part of the health check, the LGA had spoken with local media editors to understand what was working well and what areas needed improvement, which was something that the communications team would continue to explore going forward. She added that the team were also considering new ways of using technology, for example technology which had been developed due to the pandemic. The Communications Strategic Lead added that the use of online briefings and video briefings would be considered as an option, and utilised by the team if appropriate, as it provided immediate responses to questions.
The Chair questioned the budget challenges and asked if members of the communications team would be lost due to financial pressures, or if their roles were protected. He felt that the new approach and strategy needed to be deliverable, whilst being aligned with financial pressures. The Director of Strategy, Communications and Customer Service replied that the local authority would be considering all areas in regards to financial pressures. She added that the team had worked very hard during the pandemic to communicate government guidelines and changes, and she felt they had been critical during the pandemic. She stated that she had no current plans to make changes to the team, but all directorates would be considering all areas for efficiencies.
Councillor Duffin thanked the communications team, and the director, for their hard work during the pandemic, and felt that more positive news stories needed to be shared with local media outlets and on social media. He added that it was good to see responses being sent to local media outlets within 24 hours, and felt this was a high standard. He also questioned the format of media briefings, and questioned whether Members or Portfolio Holders could be involved, to increase engagement, particularly through video briefings. The Communications Strategic Lead replied that the ‘who reads what’ survey would look at where residents were getting their information, and the team would then consider which information was distributed to which sources, for example print media, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube. She stated that this would increase engagement and ensure more residents were viewing good news stories. She added that the communications team also needed more examples of good news stories, particularly those which had a direct impact on residents’ lives. The Communications Strategic Lead added that the majority of local journalists now had a more modern approach, and also directly received their information from social media. She commented that Members could play an important role in distributing important messages and content, as Members often were active on social media community pages, and could reach residents who did not want to engage directly with the Council. Councillor Duffin suggested that the communications team could introduce a mailing list, so Members could share any press releases with residents on community forum social media pages, for example road issues in their area. He also stated that any videos should remain short, as people often lost interest.
Councillor Ralph agreed that it was good to see the use of videos being included in the communications strategy, and felt that sometimes communications could be slow, particularly regarding the good news of COVID numbers falling. He also felt it was good to see social media being included in the strategy and its usage increased as the team could push messages more easily on social media, and residents could see important information more quickly. He stated that using social media was also cheaper than other methods of communication, and felt that all team members should develop the skills to use social media well. He also felt it was good to see deadlines for responding to press enquiries.
Councillor Hague added that the Council needed to increase the amount of press releases that were provided digitally, as the majority of people now used social media to view their news. He felt it was important for the ‘who reads what’ survey to cover a broad range of people, including community groups and forums. Councillor Ralph questioned how the ‘who reads what’ survey would be distributed to residents to ensure a broad range of views and a high rate of completion. The Director of Strategy, Communications and Customer Service replied that the team were currently considering how the survey would be undertaken, but were looking into an independent market research company undertaking the survey on the Council’s behalf. She explained that an independent company could get high responses from across the borough, as well as ensuring the responses reflected the population of Thurrock, rather than just people responding who were interested.
RESOLVED: That the Committee:
1. Commented on the LGA report and the progress made on implementing its recommendations through the response and action plan, and made any additional recommendations to inform the development of the new communications strategy.