“Could you deal with a press request on recycling, put together a social media plan for the next fostering campaign, sort out some new event pop-ups – oh and sell the advertising space in this quarter’s Your Council magazine too?”
Because selling advertising is just something a regular local government communications officer can do off the side of their desk, perhaps in their lunch hour, right?
Well no, of course it isn’t. For a start it takes a lot of hours’ grind to cold-call businesses to sell advertising space, with more long hours spent building relationships with those businesses to secure trust. And, actually, it’s a specialised role which – if you’re a professional communicator or marketer – is probably not in your skill set. It wasn’t in your job description either. You might not have applied for the job in the first place if it was!
In the past ten years local councils have put up with swingeing cuts to budgets in the era of austerity, losing staff along the way. Professional journal PRWeek recently published its findings from a Freedom of Information request that asked county, borough and district councils about staffing levels for PR, marketing and comms, concluding that numbers had dropped by more than 20%: from 3,443 in 2015 to 2,717 in 2019.
Yet I know from speaking to comms people around the country as part of my role at CAN and at professional events, that their workloads haven’t reduced – and that the situation is often compounded when they’re given the additional headache of sales targets for their print publication and other assets as the council tries to plug the funding gap with advertising and sponsorship revenue.
A rare breed
I’m one of those strange people who loves selling advertising! Getting a sale provides a real rush for me. As well as working for CAN, I’m the part-time Commercial Manager for the London Borough of Haringey. So, the revenue I bring in through sales goes towards savings and ultimately protects public services, which is an extra buzz. But it is blooming hard work! And takes a set of very particular skills that not everyone just has at their disposal – tough skin and nerves of steel for a start.
My council role came about because I know Simon Jones, the current Chair of LGComms (the national voice of communications in local government) from a previous job. When he was head of communications at Haringey, he asked me if there was any commercial value in the media his team was producing. He was proud of how engaging their print and digital content was for residents, businesses and employees – and he recognised that it had a larger reach and distribution than any other local media.
His instincts proved correct. I took the cost of each council communications ‘product’ and built a commercial rate card around selling advertising as part of it, reflecting what local advertisers could afford to pay so they had a good return on their investment.
There was plenty of interest. I brought in hundreds of thousands of pounds for Haringey Council through advertising sales. I also renegotiated old contracts with suppliers which could eventually deliver millions of pounds to the council.
My experiences at Haringey got me wondering if other council comms teams were trying to commercialise their assets and if I could share any pointers from what I’d learned. After I spoke about this at the LGComms Academy in Birmingham in 2018, a number of council comms people got in touch to thank me for sharing tips as they were being asked to meet sales targets (especially for their print publications) with little or no experience of coordinating ad sales.
So, at the start of 2019, I offered to carry out a few ‘mini audits’ for councils on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis as part of CAN’s sponsorship of the Comms2point0 UnAwards. When I reported back on the revenue these councils could make from their assets, they all recognised they should start looking at things in a more commercial way to plug the gaps left by funding cuts. Not least because advertisers are keen to tap into the reach and distribution of council print publications and websites – which often far outweighs that of other local media – and the brand-safe environment they offer (no fake news or dodgy videos).
But there was still the problem of a lack of skills, resource and time in-house.
Call in the ‘SAS’
That’s when we at CAN were motivated to develop a service through which councils could access the sales expertise they needed, but for a fraction of the cost of employing a salesperson in-house, by sharing resources with other local councils. So, CAN’s Sponsorship and Advertising Sales service was born, and now I’m busy signing up councils to it.
The service is designed to take the whole sales headache away, with a comprehensive audit of a council’s assets and the development of a bespoke media pack that showcases its whole offer in a way that’s most likely to appeal to advertisers. Experienced, locally based, salespeople then go to work contacting businesses who are likely to be interested in this offer and explaining the benefits and rates to them.
We understand councils need to be careful when it comes to commercialism. Any advertising or sponsorship associated with local government should be appropriate to avoid clashes with their important values. There’s also a duty of care to the local firms – who pay business rates to councils – to give them value for money and make sure they get a good return on their investment.
But when such advertising gives these local businesses a boost, raising their profile amongst residents, which in turn helps the local economy and employment – which then raises business rates that councils can spend on services (which the advertising itself also does) – it could be a very lucrative way for a council to solve that big headache for the communications team.
And it means council comms folk can get back to doing what they’re good at!