My mum is moving house. Her loft is a treasure trove of rubbish. It’s my job – as the closest son, despite living over 150 miles away, to help her clear it out.
In a box in one of the darkest recesses I recently found some of my old books. There were some ladybird classics in there – how jet engines work, for example – and also some 1980s Famous Five books. A few weeks ago I bought them home with me for my own daughter. At eight years old, she’s around the age I was when I started reading Famous Five adventures.
On the inside cover of quite a few of them I found small typed notes. Notes I must have made 30 years ago, requesting that the books be returned to a fictitious – and misspelt – library. So I started reading them to her. And in doing so I was returned to those old feelings of longing to visit Kirrin Island with the Five; that feeling of being excited by their adventures. As a 40 year old, I rekindled that emotional connection through some great stories.
That’s because humans connect with each other through story telling. A great story really gets to you. I’m not suggesting that Famous Five books are literary masterpieces, but when you’re eight they really draw you in. And it’s great stories – and emotional connections - that we need when we’re talking about place branding too.
While it’s true that stories are vital to capturing people’s imagination and enthusiasm, as an organisation we still need to make sure they’re fulfilling a purpose, which is why we work so closely with our economic development team and colleagues across the council to make sure the tales we tell have investment, growth and improvement for our communities at their heart.
It’s something we’ve been working on over the past couple of years. Our council plan is focused on growth, particularly attracting businesses to the area given how close we are to places such as Leeds, Sheffield, York and Hull and how brilliant things like our road and rail connections are, along with our more affordable housing and all round better quality of life (am I selling it to you yet?!). We want businesses to think about investing in Selby and bringing their employment opportunities to our existing communities, as well as supporting us to keep developing and improving the area.
We’ve got big ambitions, but as a council comms team we’re also acutely aware of the fact that we’ve got other big comms responsibilities and a pretty small team to deliver all that with. While like most local government communicators we’ve become skilled in the art of juggling, sorry, multitasking…, we do have to accept the limitations of our resources.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t do great things. With a bit of lateral thinking we decided to involve local businesses already in Selby to help us tell the story about what makes it a great place to do in business in. After all, who better to extoll the benefits of an area than the people already seeing them?
It was actually really straightforward to get people involved. We can sometimes be a bit frightened of picking up the phone, particularly if we’re calling the private sector, but in our experience most companies jump at the chance to tell others about the great benefits of your area. After all, they’re looking for the best talent in the country to come and work for them, so if you can both benefit from working collaboratively why wouldn’t you get involved?
Once we had people interested we brought together lots of different businesses across the district to help us develop an overarching narrative about what made Selby a great destination to do business. We then refined that top level story into a number of smaller key messages that focused on specific issues, such as the affordability of office space, our great travel connections or the quality of life and sense of balance that people could achieve by bringing their organisations to Selby. Once we had our list of qualities we identified one business per benefit to help us tell that story.
We worked together to develop a range of different content to tell those stories, from videos and social media posts to traditional press releases, sponsored content with targeted trade press and face-to-face engagement with organisations like our local enterprise partnership who could help us to spread the word. Crucially, we also let the businesses we had worked with on developing our materials have joint ownership of them too, so that they could use them to promote their organisations and help in their marketing to encourage people to the area.
It’s important to leave egos and organisational identities at the door when it comes to place branding – you’re telling the story of your area, not the story of the council. What matters is expanding its reach and cascading your message far and wide to audiences with the ability to make an impact and help you turn your strategic ambitions into realities. It’s not an exercise in splashing your council logo across everything.
Although we’re still in the early stages of this work we’ve seen some really positive results. We’ve been able to make a suite of collateral with relatively little budget as a result of having support from the businesses we have involved. Working more closely on a project like this has also really strengthened our relationships with our business community, giving us better access to them and opportunities to develop more partnerships in the future.
From an internal perspective, being able to work on something which such strategic importance to the organisation has also helped us to illustrate the value that comms can bring to the council and has helped all our teams play to our strengths when it comes to identifying ways to attract growth and investment. It hasn’t been without its challenges (I wasted a lot of time thinking about all things logo before realising it didn’t really matter!) but the benefits have far outweighed it.
Mike James, Communications and Marketing Manager, Selby District Council
You can read more about Selby’s experience and the importance of developing an effective place brand in our dedicated #FutureComms chapter.