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Surviving and thriving when budgets are tight

Across the public sector, communications teams are still feeling the pinch of austerity and reduced funding. The status quo continues to be about trying to do the same (or sometimes even more) with less cash and fewer resources than ever. This simply isn’t sustainable, and is a huge challenge and barrier to achieving the public sector’s ambitious campaign and citizen engagement goals.

But recently, there has been an emergence of a new school of comms entrepreneur who are challenging the way we think about public services and the role of communications. This group is developing new, high-value, fee-based services for their communities and leveraging strategic digital communications to promote, inform and measure the impact of those services — all while staying budget-neutral or generating actual revenue.

The topic of reaching and exceeding income targets in the public sector was a primary focus of the recent 2017 Public Sector Communications Conference in London, where speakers highlighted in more detail their innovative paths forward.

Among them, Darren Caveney and Dan Slee, Co-creators of comms2point0, presented a session titled “How to Survive and Thrive When Your Comms Budget Falls: Tales of Hope from the Public Sector”. Darren and Dan spoke about the new whitepaper/guide launched at the event  “Income Targets: Comms Entrepreneurs, Income Warriors, and Three Paths Forward”, which has been produced by them in collaboration with Granicus and organisations across local and central government in the UK.

Income whitepaper

This 52-page resource is packed full of new research and results, opinion pieces and a range of case studies, making it easy for you to dip in and out as you need. It investigates the public sector trend of income generation, particularly among councils, and the role of digital communications to support the success of those revenue-generating programmes.

As shared in the whitepaper, Darren and Dan pointed to the recent survey conducted by Granicus that revealed nearly 50 per cent of the 400 communicators surveyed revealed that their budgets have decreased heading into 2018. Additionally, 30 per cent said that their budgets have remained the same while expectations and team objectives continue to grow.

So with stagnant or decreasing budgets, how can organisations move forward and deliver communications campaigns and initiatives that meet tough objectives? How can communicators improve programme outcomes with ever-tightening budgets? How can communications teams and their organisations survive?


Darren and Dan discussed three primary paths forward for communications teams:


Approach 1: Be Good at Bringing in Money


For those who have income targets and face this as a new challenge, it’s important to have senior buy-in and support for this endeavour, and add capacity and the skills required to deliver the new approach properly. Many teams are being tasked with generating income but do not necessarily have any sales experience or skills within their team.

With the right team and the right skills, you can generate good income from outside the organisation, Darren explained – like Stoke-on-Trent Council and Essex County Council are demonstrating so well. You can place communications at the forefront of new ideas and you can make your team more financially secure.

However, it’s important to consider that this approach may be asking you to do tasks outside of your comfort zone – e.g. selling events, sponsorship, services, or advertising opportunities. You could be asked to sail on the ocean when you have only been across the lake in a rowing boat, so it might be unfamiliar territory for the majority of organisations.



Approach 2: Be Good at Evaluating Communications Using Financial Metrics


Correlating poor communications with higher service delivery costs is an important step in realising the potential of good communications to make a positive difference to helping balance the books. Not all organisations are good at mapping the impact of good comms with better programme outcomes – financial savings, self-serving citizens, service efficiencies etc.

For example, lack of or poor communications can lead to fewer informed and equipped customers. This puts more pressure on an organisation’s contact centre or increases demand for more costly public sector services and in-person interventions. Instead, timely digital comms to inform, educate and convert people into action could help reduce this avoidable contact.

Or, a powerful communications campaign to recruit foster carers could place more vulnerable children in a safe home, reducing the need to pay more expensive agency fees. These are the impacts of good comms that communicators should be encouraged to track and pursue.

By equating solid communications with financial metrics, organisations will have a much easier time connecting the value with digital services. With stronger and more efficient communications comes reduced hours of phone time answering questions from citizens, and there is real financial value in that approach.



Approach 3: Bring in Money AND Use Communications to Impact Financial Metrics


By combining the two approaches to improving the financial health of an organisation, organisations will be able to both bring in additional revenue and continue delivering comms campaigns that when evaluated properly, equate to bringing about financial savings.

Firstly, you adopt the traditional income generation model where you bring in external funds from a variety of quarters (selling your services and sweating your assets). Secondly, you can road-test the route of evaluating communications using financial metrics (how many calls did your digital comms save? How many people have you channel shifted? Did your campaign reduce the need for a costly intervention?). This twin-track approach may also reassure nervous finance officers by hedging bets.

While there are barriers to accomplishing increased income generation (e.g. lack of staff time or capacity), shifting priorities and focusing on financial measurables could be more about realigning and reallocating resources and staff time, instead of needing to find budget to add to them. By utilising the approaches laid out in the new guide “Income Targets: Comms Entrepreneurs, Income Warriors, and Three Paths Forward”, organisations can carve a new path forward as they seek to meet their income targets.

With 12 case studies, 2 opinion pieces, and a bunch of survey results from across the UK public sector, this whitepaper is a must-read for anyone looking to use communications more strategically to affect their organisation’s financial health.

Karen Yates and Andy Allsopp from Essex County Council (featured as a case study in the resource), shared their approach at #UKComm17 to bringing in new income. Dave Worsell of Granicus and John-Paul Danon of Council Advertising Network also spoke at the event to discuss the huge income opportunity presented by selling ad space in your email bulletins.

You can catch up on the #UKComm17 presentations from the day here.