Westco - Blog The Importance of Communications Leadership


This is the first in a regular series of blogs on Lessons from Communication Reviews where Westco’s Director of Communications, Simon Jones, analyses key issues that have cropped up in Westco’s 40-plus audits across public services. Let’s kick off with Communications Leadership…


The role strategic communications should play in an organisation is like the engine room of a ship. The more effective communications is, the more powerful that engine will be to guide and safeguard the ship. That’s because comms play a central role in navigating the ship through rough seas – the challenges that affect trust – constantly horizon-scanning for risks and opportunities while helping to set the course ahead.


Therefore (and I promise to stop the ship analogies soon), communications should be a key player in the decision-making process, akin to the Captain’s Deck, where leadership skills are essential. 


The engine room of strategic communications


There are two important elements to this. The first is the confidence, nous, and passion of the communications leader. The second, and even more important given that the first element can be developed over time, is the organisation’s ability to recognise the role strategic comms should play. 


This is usually fertile territory for our reviews because there are often unintended disconnects that inhibit this from happening, some of which can be easily fixed. Often, in our reviews, we’ve observed that communications don’t always have an effective seat at the top table. 


In local authorities, the most important ‘top table’ to be at are Cabinet planning meetings, which should bring the Corporate Leadership Team (CLT), Senior Leadership Team (SLT), and Cabinet members together in informal meetings to discuss policy and oversee upcoming Cabinet agendas. 


The comms leadership role


Where communications do have a seat at the table, the seat must be used effectively so that the communication lead can contribute to the general discussion and advise on policy items, not just on the communication grid as a standard item. For the comms leader, there shouldn’t be many policy surprises because one of the tests of effective leadership is the extent to which they are plugged in across the organisation. 


Of course, in reality, nobody can be everywhere at once and we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve been asked, “Why didn’t communications know about this?” And the preferred answer is usually, “Because we didn’t have a crystal ball.” Developing strong formal and informal relationships with Executive Directors and other key stakeholders (such as the Leader’s gatekeeper) will help you to develop that ‘crystal ball’ over time.


Effective communication is not solely the responsibility of the comms leader. Senior communicators should be sufficiently plugged into key business areas in a business partner-type model. This is a key area we often see not working because the balance between being embedded and corporate working is not right. More often than not, we also see confidence gaps when it comes to working with elected members which requires training and development. 


Navigating organisational challenges


A critical dependency to all of this is the strength of the communication grid. The less effective grids come across as a shopping list of tactical activities being delivered that week. It’s better to highlight a few key strategic issues in a ‘Priorities’ section (issues that are important to the organisation as a whole) whilst ensuring that future risks or opportunities are properly tracked and highlighted. 


The other thing we look for in our communication reviews, which isn’t always in place, is a regular informal meeting between the communications lead, the Leader/CEO, and any key Cabinet Members. These are important opportunities to agree on key lines and monitor the forward plan. 


As for reporting structures, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Sometimes I get asked, “Should communications report directly to the CEO?” It all depends on local conditions. Generally speaking, the most effective governance is where communications are part of the corporate policy and strategy family, whether that’s reporting directly to the CEO, Deputy CEO, or Executive Director for corporate services. The further down the structure communications are, the less ability to influence.


Leveraging comms effectively


Our work shows that what matters more than governance structures is having the right relationships in place. Success or failure often depends on strong interpersonal connections, which is the reason some people thrive in one organisation but struggle in another. 


The ability to ‘read the room’, understand what makes different people tick and what they’re looking for from you, and adapt your style accordingly is a crucial ingredient to success. For more insight, download our full report on Lessons From Our Communication Reviews.





Simon is a former chair of LGcomms. He has worked as a Head/Director of Communications in local government since 2007.

If you are interested in running a communication peer review email Simon@westcocommunications.com


Simon Jones






The role strategic communications should play in an organisation is like the engine room of a ship. The more effective communications is, the more powerful that engine will be to guide and safeguard the ship.


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