Engagement is a contact sport

Holding HandsI like my neighbour. If he came around now and said “Stuart, can I borrow your car for a day, mine’s knackered” I would give him the keys. I’ve known him 17 years, every day we say hello, I know his grandkids, he knows my in-laws. Had John for the last ten years moved to a holiday home in the South Downs, come back every four years or so, never said hello but demanded use of my car, I may well have given him a different answer.

Relationships (and ultimately that is what public relations is about) matter.  So what next for Government communications and engagement with localities and regions? The losing margin in the EU Referendum was small but crucial, but there is a very clear message here – local communities feel ignored.

In 2009 local places were represented by Government Offices and Regional Development Agencies – one set up at the instigation of John Major, the other by John Prescott. They were the eyes, ears and mouth of their local areas in Westminster and the quid pro quo was the voice of Westminster in local areas.

Regions make little sense to local communities: no one is really an East Midlander, they’re from Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Northampton (or wherever else you lay your hat in this neck of the woods) but there was a vague bond around place built up over decades. But what we have now are ‘areas’ stretching from Milton Keynes to Grimsby where a sense of place or cohesion is impossible.

Ministers spent a significant amount of time hitting the shoe leather to meet local people and local leaders face to face – both on and off camera. And when they couldn’t get out, their representatives - who lived, worked and were invested in a particular place - could.

There was also a fair number of regionally based Government communicators – approximately 130 staff everywhere from Newcastle to Plymouth and all points between. Other agencies and departments had people ‘out there’ as well – not to ‘spin’, not to mislead or peddle a line but to inform, educate, represent the good things Government was doing day-in and day-out, and feed back local feeling to London.

It came at a large cost: near on a billion just on Government marketing campaigns in the last year of Gordon Brown alone. Things needed to change, become more focused and targeted, cost-effective.

In change there will always be winners and losers: in communications we constantly need to strive forward and adapt to our environment. But the one thing we must NOT do is to succumb to group-think, to one-size-fits-all, and to stop listening to the end audiences.

Just one section of the swing towards the Brexit vote was an older audience - an audience which still listens to local BBC local radio stations, which still buys local newspapers in their tens and hundreds of thousands. From the former mining towns of Wakefield district to the farming communities in Boston, the older folk don’t hang on the latest Twitter campaigns: for them, a thunderclap is something that comes from the heavens. They felt ignored.

When people are taking pot-shots at you, the worst strategy is to batten down the hatches and wait for things to blow over. You get out there and take the high ground and endure the slings and arrows which will inevitably come.

For some, the result of this vote, and the feelings which lay behind it, may have come as a surprise. Those closer to these communities may be more familiar with such feelings.

Are there lessons to learn? Whatever happens next, Government communications and engagement needs investment to build back those links, reach out at a local level and step up engagement to broaden the scope out from the Whitehall bubble and beyond the M25. The prize – re-engagement – is a price well worth paying.