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Message mastery with Kim Skubris

Friday 30 November 2018

"I''m not a politician - I'm a local who wants to do good for my community."

As I worked with local councils across Queensland this year, elected members have often shared this heartfelt statement with me. It reminds me of how many good people there are working at the grassroots of government, and how vulnerable many of them feel.

The pressures felt by community leaders are arguably greater than ever before. They face increasing public and media scrutiny, complicated legislative changes addressing controversial issues like corruption and accountability, and seemingly relentless, vicious attacks from social media trolls and angry customers.

So, how do you shape communications to take back control?

How do community leaders, and councils rise above these challenges?

My recent one-on-one and group workshops with local councils has convinced me the power of communications lies in authentic, message mastery, compelling storytelling, and inspiring presenting, not spin.

It is humbling to be trusted by local councils. Some are firing on all cylinders on the communications front, while others I’d describe as battered, rather than broken. They are run by genuine, dynamic councillors who are affected by self-doubt. This has been fuelled by a difficult year for local government in Queensland, and closer to home, issues with media bias, vexatious social media comments, and infighting within the council ranks.

To these councils I advise, with respect, to get over yourselves, and put things into perspective. The keyboard vipers are only a small proportion of your overall constituency. Elected members are voted in by family, friends, colleagues and communities, and the more effectively they communicate with them, the stronger the local council will be.

One of the most damaging pitfalls councils are falling into is being reactive rather than proactive with messaging. When an issue is bubbling in the media or community forum, they wait to respond to enquiries rather than driving the agenda. By stepping up first, councils have the opportunity to steer the issue and story angle.

But first, it is critical to nail the message and ensure it is compelling enough to engage the target audience.

Woman bein interviewed on camera

Primarily, it's about simplifying the facts without distorting them. This is the first lesson I share with the young, inexperienced reporters in the Channel Seven newsroom in Brisbane.

It is not as easy to do as you might think, and it is important for many reasons.

Time and time again, I witness nervous councillors gain confidence when their key speaking points have a clear direction. Instead of waffling through everything they know about a subject matter, they pinpoint the most important “takeaways” or media “grabs” that will make a lasting impression.

An audience does not need to know everything you know about everything. It needs to be engaged, inspired, and better still moved, so that your message is repeated to others.These messages are backed up by stories, and it is amazing how many stories we uncover during council workshops.

The new Better Councils, Better Communities campaign is a wonderful example of powerful communication through storytelling. Locals and their stories feature in this campaign which reinforces trust, reliability and authenticity. Elected members of local government are the faces of advertisements and billboards.

Not actors. Not community outsiders.

They are people who are prepared to show they are human, and speak from the heart.

This is what I’ve witnessed often during my workshops. When councillors step out of their comfort zones and embrace strategies for powerful communication they share amazing stories with passion.

They stop overthinking.

What I mean by this is, by the time many leaders are at the point of making a speech, doing yet another ribbon cutting, or addressing fellow councillors they have focussed so much on the information and getting all the facts straight, they have forgotten what the heart of their message is.

Don’t get me wrong – you must know the facts. But the emotional drive behind the message is fundamental to making an impact. If the audience is not engaged then the message is lost.

Sharing stories that are relevant to the council’s message touches the heart of an audience. It is also a strategy that can forge stronger relationships with the media. Some local councils I have worked with that have been burnt by the media have adopted an attitude of “no comment” or have banned news organisations from events. This is communications suicide.

If elected members are trained in how to handle the media, and are also armed with strong messages and presenting strategies, the outcome is more likely to swing in their favour.

It is possible to manipulate the media, and turn the tide on social media trolls.

Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Local government is much more than roads, rates and rubbish. Elected members represent the heart of the community, and I encourage them to speak from the heart and share with passion. I hope by sharing these observations it inspires readers to more carefully consider communications strategies, and to reach out to experts in their organisations or within the ranks of LGAQ and Peak Services.

It is a pleasure and honour travelling throughout Queensland working with local councils, and hearing many of your stories. I wish you all the very best in your next chapter.

Kim Skubris is a broadcast journalist with more than 25 years experience. The mum of two now runs her own communications consultancy and works with LGAQ and Peak Services specialising in message mastery, public speaking, media training, and storytelling. She is a proud Ambassador of The Daniel Morcombe Foundation.


Local Government Association of Queensland
LG House, 25 Evelyn Street, Newstead Qld 4006


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