The LGA can help your council create a new corporate narrative.
Ahead of winter pressures, now is a good time to consider your council’s post-pandemic purpose.
To articulate this purpose, after so much change during the past 18 months, many councils will be looking to build a new narrative.
LGA communications peer reviews and health checks, carried out at councils across the country, as well as findings from our annual survey of communications leads, consistently show the need for a corporate narrative.
Now more than ever, developing a new narrative will help embed a coherent approach to building back after COVID-19 and strengthen democratic accountability.
So what is a narrative and why is it important?
A strategic narrative is a single compelling story created from different elements of information from across a complex organisation, such as a council. It is not a ‘nice to have’ but rather a fundamental element of the organisation’s communication strategy.
The narrative sets out where the organisation has come from and where it wants to be, and translates corporate aims and planned-for outcomes into language that engages stakeholders’ hearts and minds.
It provides direction for what the council wants to achieve and how it behaves corporately and as individuals, and focuses the efforts of staff around a shared understanding of where the organisation is going and how they can contribute.
Effective organisational narratives build confidence and understanding for staff, partners and communities by structuring, prioritising and ascribing meaning to experiences and beliefs. They support behaviour change (in the organisation) or promote social change (in communities) by communicating core values, or, by reinforcing coherence in a world where we are bombarded with information and messages.
Authentic narratives make the vison of the organisation believable and build trust. They provide orientation in times of uncertainty when decisions need to be made quickly and complexity needs to be reduced. By telling a more ‘memorable tale’ emphasising specific aspects of the organisation, communication will have a greater impact.
Following research and information gathering across the council and community, it can be helpful to express the essence of an organisation on one side of paper. Once agreed, this 400-word narrative should be crystallised into a 30-word version and shared with images and film to engage as wide an audience as possible.
But how best to reach that stage? The skills needed to build your narrative – facilitation and engagement, gathering stories, telling them well and editing – often exist in communications teams, but you can also develop them across your council.
Help is at hand from the LGA’s free toolkit, ‘Building a narrative for your council’.
The toolkit includes practical information and resources to help councils conduct research through workshops, focus groups and creative conversations. There is also guidance about sharing information through social media, images and video as well as case studies about councils who have gone through the process of creating a narrative.
Feedback from a well-attended LGA communications webinar about narrative earlier this year led to the organisation of a workshop in September for councils who have plans to embark on the process.
Support from members, senior leaders, staff and the community is crucial; research shows that the more the narrative is owned and shaped collectively, the more it will make a positive difference.
Collaboration with external organisations can also work well, as shown by Essex County Council in its work with Essex Partners. This is a group of public sector bodies, including universities and voluntary and community organisations, responsible for developing the vision for ‘The future of Essex’.
As the Essex Partners began to work on a place brand for the county, the council wanted to refresh its existing narrative and align it with the wider ambitions for Essex. By working together, they were able to explain the narrative in the context of the place branding but also be clear about what the council would be responsible for and what would be the remit of other partners (see www.local.gov.uk/essex-county-council-aligning-your-corporate-narrative-and-place-brand).
Whatever approach your council takes, the key questions to ask in building your narrative are:
- What is your story saying about the purpose of your council?
- Why do officers and members in your council choose to do what they do and why is that important?
- What is the human version of ourselves we want to see?
- What does your story say to the wider world?
To make a narrative project successful requires commitment from the council in terms of time and resources. The extra work should not be underestimated when teams are already working at full stretch.
“Investing time in the creation of a post-pandemic narrative is a useful and positive project for a council, its members, staff and community.”
The information gathered can inform policy and future projects, as well as provide authentic content to share with stakeholders. It encourages team building across the council and improves staff knowledge of other services, facilitating future collaboration.
The research will also involve genuine, two-way communication with communities and staff. The whole process should be engaging and exciting to be part of.
Once you have the agreed narrative, councils need to share and embed the story successfully. This can take time and the LGA toolkit includes some suggestions about working with your network of ‘champions’ to do this.
Evaluating the impact of your new narrative is also important and the toolkit gives practical advice about quantitative and qualitative measures.
Developing a narrative is never an end in itself, but rather a tool to help your organisation communicate and achieve its objectives. Councils and the communities they serve constantly evolve and their narratives should too.
Bold, confident and proud
Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council is a good example of an organisation that has developed and evolved its narrative over many years – even before the council existed – when local government reorganisation was proposed in 2015.
As Georgia Turner, BCP’s director of communications and marketing, explained during a recent LGA webinar, the council’s ‘Big Plan’ is “all about setting the ambition of our place – a story of growth, of bravery and innovation, and of maximising opportunities. A story of being Bold, Confident and Proud.”
She added: “It’s a story of creating new homes, jobs and investment value with delivery plans attached.
“It’s held onto the local government reorganisation principles of our scale and our location and is broken down into strategic themes – or chapters if you want to stick with the storytelling parlance – of ‘Iconic’, ‘Rejuvenate Poole’, ‘Seafront, ‘Infrastructure’ (which includes digital and physical), and ‘Act at scale’, with underlying themes of communities, children and culture.
“Our Big Plan tells the story of a place thinking big and acting big, with the ambition and aspiration that goes with that.”
The ‘One Story’ narrative project began in May 2020 with a small group of communications professionals determined to change the (sometimes) negative perception of local councils.
Supported by the LGA, the group ran 12 online workshops and more than 100 people from 60 different councils took part.
Stories were gathered and have been shared in a book ‘One story – councils, covid and better futures’.
A narrative was also developed from the research, the key themes of which are:
- We are run by people like you, who care.
- We stand up for you and stand alongside you.
- We make change happen in our common interest.
- We are here in tough times and good.