Communications departments – what’s the purpose?

Recently I was leading a workshop at the Association for Real Change (ARC) in Wolverhampton. I’d not intended it to create debate about the role of communications departments but it did raise some interesting questions.

Please don’t Tweet because of my communications department!

At the end of the session I asked everyone to think about what changes they would like to see implemented in their organisations on a piece of paper. I’d also asked delegates to write #MyRealChange so I could tweet these. I also said that if they didn’t want them shared to let me know.

One of the delegates wrote:

“Take info back to my organisation on Stay Up Late. Tell our newly appointed volunteers co-ordinator about Gig Buddies with a view to recruiting volunteers specifically for this, and perhaps linking office based staff to the people we support.”

Another had written:

“Change workplace cultures. Get visionary leadership. Turn plans in to action. Focus on good practice and news. Go beyond and look at staff’s personal interests/skills”

I don’t think there’s anything too radical about these, in fact they all sound like thoroughly good ways of changing things for the better, but they’d also written at the bottom:

“Please don’t tweet – would have to go via our communications department”.

Communications departments - what’s the purpose?

If you Google what the purpose of a communications team is you’ll find lots of functions. Including things like creating content to make customers and stakeholders aware of your business and upholding the good reputation of your organisation. But really isn’t the purpose to do whatever it is your organisation does?

If you work for British Aerospace your purpose is to make a profit out of selling planes and weapons. If it’s British American Tobacco it’s surely too make a profit out of selling cigarettes. If you work for a support provider it’s to support people well who use your services.

An IT person may say that their job is maintain and protect the IT system but they do all that because if it breaks frontline staff will not be able to do their job properly. Their purpose is to provide excellent back office support so frontline staff can go about their job well, be happy, not stressed out and provide good quality support.

The same can be said for every single job in an organisation. Whatever job you do in social care, whether that’s frontline support, strategic planning, IT support, or finance, everyone in that organisation needs to share the same purpose. To provide a great service to the people they support.

What is most important though is that there is a sense of connection for all staff. They need to understand their ultimate purpose and have that sense of what those values are in all their work. A good communications department can really enable that to happen. (And I’d like to add I work with a great one at Think Local Act Personal!)

Once I was asked by some people who used services of a support provider to organise a meeting with the head of the IT department there. They had identified some areas where they felt things weren’t working well. Everyone thought an open and honest discussion about this would be a great way to come up with a coproduced solution. Everyone that is except the head of the IT department who felt that such a discussion could be potentially unhelpful and difficult.

Times are really tough in social care at the moment. It’s abundantly clear that we need to work in much more co-productive ways. We also need to acknowledge that this won’t always be easy and smooth and sometimes conversations will be difficult. But we do all need to work as equals and treat each other as adults, showing the greatest respect for the people we’re ultimately paid to support.

Whether its fear of change, or protecting our egos, it may just be that managers need to ‘get over themselves!’

The issue of processes getting in the way of delivering real change was also highlighted at the recent National Children and Adult Services conference in Bournemouth. Members of Think Local Act Personal’s National Coproduction Advisory Group (who I coordinate in my other job) had presented a fantastic sub-plenary session. The session was about using co-production approaches to deliver services that promote well-being but are also more cost effective. However, one of the delegates commented that this is all very well but he is having to deal with timetables such as budgetary cycles and elections and that coproduction approaches don’t fit at all well with this.

The response from Isaac Samuels presenting was:

“Processes like budgetary cycles and elections should not get in the way of coproducing services with the people who need them. This is about peoples’ lives.”

Communications departments - what’s the purpose?

This sums the issue up superbly. If we want to change cultures we need to work with the people we support, we all need to work with a shared sense of purpose and think radically differently about the processes that we’ve created, especially when they get in the way of peoples’ well-being.

When starting this blog I was going to write up what came out of the ARC conference as part of our on-going work to create debate about culture change. However, this comment about communications team really bothered me. There seems to be so much that is challenging social care at the moment, and so much that needs to culturally change. I just hope not too much of this is being held up by communications teams more worried about reputations and not about enabling staff to innovate, change cultures and ultimately support people to lead great lives.

I don’t want to be too hard on communications and IT departments. I’m sure they’re doing a great job most of the time but they, like any other part of the machine, need to be aware of their overall purpose in life and always work in a way that supports that.

I hope the great suggestion at the start of this post to release social capital in back office staff by finding out what their interests are to turn them in to potential volunteers is seized on by the communications department at that organisation. It’s a fantastic idea and could enable more and more people to lead full and active social lives.

I’ll write up more on what came out of the ARC conference soon.


Communications departments - what’s the purpose?

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