Public Service Communications Academy: From our reporter

The 2021 Public Service Communications Academy took place on 23 and 24 November, in the virtual environment we have all come to love (or hate). It was an opportunity for comms colleagues from local and central government to come together, reflect on the past year, and look ahead to 2022 and beyond.

Day 1

After an introduction from LGcomms’ chair Alix MacFarlane, the new Chief Executive of the Government Communications Service (GCS), Simon Baugh delivered the opening address. With barely one month under his belt, it was still clear to see how passionate he is about his new role. Simon used his time to show his vision of using collaboration, partnership and coordination to “communicate less, more constantly” to build confidence in the public and private sector working together.

Simon highlighted his dedication to raising the standard of the profession in Government with a new project to focus on the skills, capabilities and experiences that will be needed by our communicators looking out to 2025. “Our people are what makes GCS. The skills and the expertise we have will ultimately determine our success,” he said.

Shayoni Lynn, founder of Lynn PR, followed Simon with a keynote speech, sharing the inspiring story of how she moved from investigative journalist to public service communicator, now owner of her own agency. She warned communications experts can no longer “stumble blindly’” and need to use behavioural science more, to understand the audience and change behaviour rather than just “tell”.

Alex Aiken, Executive Director for GCS, Sam Edwards, Deputy Director for Cabinet Office Campaigns and Beth Robins, Deputy Director for Strategic Communications, Cabinet Office took to the stage next to present their session from the Downing Street briefing room, a visual reminder of the global to local stage that LGComms and GCS encompasses. Alex discussed the great wealth of reputational resources the UK has to use, engaging a worldwide audience, with our science and technology advancements still leading the way and 2022 building interest with the Commonwealth games and Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee.

We were hugely grateful to have Mark Webb next, comms pro and host of the Disability@thetable podcast, to share his lived experience of accessing an inaccessible word and the changes we can all make to change the tide.

Turning the tide on climate change was another theme, with Leeds City Council’s Climate Change team providing a detailed account of how they are using local influencers to engage their community and make the small changes that can make all the difference; we should all consider climate as part of our day job.

Next came an inspirational talk on internal communications from Caroline Baillie, Deputy Director for Internal Communication at Department for Work and Pensions, and Harriet Small, Internal Communications Lead, London Borough of Hackney. Their advocacy of “colleague to colleague” storytelling to increase engagement and “getting yourself front of mind showing where you can add value” to your organisation’s senior leadership team, were great takeaways.

Digital was the next hot topic, with Peter Heneghan, Head of Digital for GCS joined by Helen Reynolds, ex-GCS and founder of Comms Creatives. They talked in detail about how we can leverage various channels to reach key audiences, and how creative content makes for catchy storytelling that will boost engagement.

Rounding off our day was an inspiring talk on accessible communications in practice. GCS’s Stephanie Hill, Louise Alabaster and Karen Yates from Essex County Council, and Lousie McQuillan, Text Help shared a wealth of advice and signposted to great resources to help us all not only meet the new legal requirements but demonstrate best practice in inclusivity. It was clear how passionate they all were about the subject, brought on not just by professional pride, but a real emotional attachment to the subject through their experience of watching loved ones struggle.

Day 2

Francis Ingham, LGcomms Executive Director and Chair of the PRCA (Public Relations and Communications Association), set the day off to a focused start by detailing the changes he feels need to happen in support of the continuation of the great work of the past year as we come out of crisis mode. He gave his observations on how he feels the new openness to home-working presents an opportunity for wider and more diverse recruitment, but he cautioned against not combining this with the extensive work still to be done on hybrid working practices.

Christian Cubitt, Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and Lauren Scott, Refugees at Home, gave a heartwarming account of how a charity found itself at the forefront of supporting a society who were so willing to help following on from the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Lauren explained how collaborating with both Local and Central Government was the key to being able to utilise all the great offers which came forward, many of which were outside their normal activity. Christian emphasised the crucial support that charities such as Lauren’s gave, acting as influencers in communities and conduits for key information, as well as signposting to official government guidance.

Next was an introduction to the Future Communicator project, led by Dee Cotgrove, Deputy Director for Professional Standards, GCS. Industry partners were invited to discuss their views on the changing landscape we all operate in. Adam Skinner, Chief Operating Officer for Omnigov, Gemma Swinglehurst, Government Industry Manager at Google, Martin Friar, Cabinet Office Deputy Director and Selvin Brown, Director Communications at DWP answered a series of questions around our future and its impact on the skills we will need.

As lunchtime approached on day 2 of our virtual event it was the perfect time to delve into the subject of mental health, in a session led by Cabinet Office Deputy Director Cheryl King-McDowall. Frances Ingham gave a very personal account of how this has been a subject that has affected him personally and how he was glad that when people ask the question “How are you doing?” they now expect an honest answer. Sally Northeast, Deputy Director of Communications for NHS Dorset and Georgia Turner, Head of Communications for Bournemouth Council, talked about putting workers mental health at the centre of organisational development, ensuring everyone has the psychological safety to ask for help when needed.

Next up, Kohinoor Meghji, Head of HR and Workforce Strategy for GCS, brought together a diverse panel to discuss the ins and outs of successful communications teams. Amber Warne started GCS as an apprentice in lockdown and she shared that having supportive group managers who allowed her to network around them and the wider office was a great help. Danni Clayton, Head of Comms for Leeds City Council, reiterated the point of finding other ways to develop; she has worked with voluntary organisations to give her the experience of organisations and practice soft skills of working, collaborating and partnering. Abigail Morris, Director of Communication for BEIS promoted the idea of sharing your networks; if you know someone doesn’t have that mirror to help them look at options in a different light, then offer to share your trusted listeners with them.

Our penultimate session looked into how those who are involved in crisis management daily manage to foster resilience under pressure. Claire Pimm, National resilience Communications Director and Olivia Lerche, Deputy Director for South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, shared their experiences. Olivia talked about having the confidence to innovate as it will often pay off, but don’t expect perfection. Claire also talked about innovation using modern communication methods to improve engagement directly with our citizens.

To round off our event, day 2 finished with a great questions and answers session with panelists Shaun Gibbons, Communications Manager for South Holland Council, Peter Holt, Chief Executive for Uttlesford District Council, Minaxi Henegan, Deputy Director, Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office Communications, and Philippa Clayre, Executive Director, Government & Public Sector Practice UK at WPP. They shared their current personal development activities, ways of maintaining their own wellbeing and what they feel are the emerging trends and challenges that will affect Communications the most.