by James Powell | 24 November 2016
How one county’s local campaigners changed the narrative reported by the media after forming a mutual to take over management of local library services.
The future for Suffolk’s libraries looked bleak in 2011 when Suffolk County Council’s review indicated 29 out of 44 libraries might close to meet Government budget cuts.
The answer emerged by engaging local campaigners, who protested against library closures, to keep the libraries open. Nearly 40,000 people across Suffolk replied, inspiring the creation of a new body to manage and deliver library services.
In 2012 Suffolk Libraries Industrial and Provident Society (‘Suffolk Libraries’ or ‘IPS’) was formed, and by August, the whole service transferred into its care.
Suffolk was the first county to hand over management of the library service to a mutual body. Even while forming the IPS, Suffolk Libraries faced enormous uncertainty, because there was a long way to go before guaranteeing future sustainable delivery.
The consultation had revealed poor perception of the service, and campaigners were angry, fuelled by negative press stories. Local customers wanted reassurance the service would survive. Staff were looking for job certainty, while coping with significant change. Press coverage reflected this.
Once the model settled with Suffolk Libraries as the service provider, it was time to move away from the anger. The key challenge was to change the libraries’ story into a positive narrative.
Suffolk Libraries’ starting point in 2012 was to become the voice on reading. The team wanted to win great publicity for the service and successfully promote local events. More importantly, they had to ensure services reflected what library users wanted.
To begin diversifying the library experience, Suffolk Libraries invested in research to explore the needs of users and people not yet using the service. Each library took ownership of local events, while the dedicated web team expanded the digital services and re-launched the website with fresh content. Suffolk Libraries began to use social media channels and email marketing to reach a wider audience. [read more in Suffolk Libraries’ Digital Marketing case study ]
Geography plays an important part for Suffolk Libraries, where some users are outside county borders, so they established community groups to provide feedback on what was right for each local library. Some led a change in opening hours, or initiated new services, and one even changed their library’s name. These groups elect the Board of Suffolk Libraries, and many have self-appointed PR officers as local spokespeople with the media.
Suffolk Libraries gave staff more freedom to drive positive communications. The Communications Manager focused on building better relationships with local media contacts, to change their perception of the service and collaborate.
Managers responsible for promoting new book releases began to develop suggested reading lists and content to share with the press, relating to TV programs or local events.
During 2014 Suffolk Libraries created a clear vision and values, with plans to keep the service responsive and viable.
They published Our 2020 Vision (PDF) and developed an ‘elevator pitch’ to explain how Suffolk Libraries service had changed since separating from the council.
By March 2015, they introduced the Living Wage for staff, with annual percentage pay increases and a rewards scheme. Over 60 people received recognition in the first ten months, and in 2016, over 90% of Suffolk Libraries’ staff are proud to work for them.
Since 2015, the media has reported good news from Suffolk Libraries, underpinned by the main story: all the libraries remained open, are staffed by professionals, and contribute enormously to their communities.
Initial contacts were with local BBC Radio, local BBC TV and approximately 20 newspapers across Suffolk, plus community magazines and bloggers or forums like Mumsnet.
The Communications Manager handles regular press requests to provide content, or comment on topics of local interest.
Each year over 90% of Suffolk Libraries customers believe that the service has maintained a good standard, or improved, and over 90% of staff are proud to work for Suffolk Libraries.
With very little budget, Suffolk Libraries spent time reaching out to press contacts to persuade them personally of the positive changes.
In 2013, a very negative headline appeared in the local paper, based on declining borrowing figures. CIPFA statistics show a consistent fall in physical book borrowing, yet every year it slows eBook loans and digital services increase.
In 2014 Suffolk Libraries approached this story differently, by inviting the same reporter into the library to discuss the figures, explain their vision and provide local case studies. It resulted in a much more positive article, still based on the same statistical trends.
By 2015, figures for children’s book borrowing had increased, creating another good news angle. Suffolk Libraries continue to support the media to report on CIPFA statistics, yet steer towards the positives of the service.
Once new services were in place, they aimed high to interview famous authors or create innovative events. This sparked interest from local radio presenters and reporters, and the team quickly discovered providing their own good quality photographs helped win prominent coverage.
Delivery of Suffolk Libraries’ strategy centres on communications. Several staff contribute to online content, blogs, and event microsites. The web team, stock managers and Communications Manager meet regularly to plan ahead, and have realised the importance of reacting fast when stories happen.
Fun opportunities to engage the public often begin on social media, and are shared with local press. One story featured a cat wandering into a library, another centred on a fan letter tucked inside a novel; one was a sketch on a book’s date stamp, and another was an innovative ‘blind date with a book’ display.
Suffolk Libraries highlight their key messages in shorter press releases on a single page. When handling press enquiries, they develop an appropriate response, creating potentially popular stories to help sell newspapers. Being proactive helps Suffolk Libraries maintain an open and positive relationship with the media.
Suffolk Libraries are determined to demonstrate the value a modern library service can offer – and be the voice of reading and learning to support the community.
My role includes raising awareness of the library service has to offer, publicising events and working on getting our key messages across to existing and hopefully new library customers. Promoting our online services are increasingly important with an increasingly catalogue of free ebooks and a new online free music service. I recently worked on submitting an entry to the EDGE library awards for our Get Connected project and we've just found out we've been shortlisted!