Polly Rance: Focus on reputation feels like navel-gazing

In recent years local government communicators have done a lot of talking and a lot of thinking about reputation, both of the sector and our individual authorities.

Polly Rance: promote reputation through inward investment
Polly Rance: promote reputation through inward investment

Whilst it all felt right at the time, in the cold light of the age of austerity, much of it seems like navel-gazing and, at worst, like self-aggrandisement.  

The media tide has turned for councils and many are being taken by surprise by a suddenly aggressive national press. This is a double whammy – whilst central government is radically slashing local authority budgets, the press are waiting in the wings to bash councils for wasting the slender resources with which they are left.

For the past decade, councils have been free to promote their reputations with impunity. Now all that has changed. A recent story in the Daily Mail showed one authority being accused of ‘raiding’ money from its Children’s Services budget to spend on wining and dining senior managers at an established industry awards event.  

As recently as 12 months ago this would never have made it onto the radar of a national paper; such events were core business for councils seeking to raise their profile in the sector, to attract and retain the best staff, and were seen as a good value way to do so.??So does reputation still matter?

Yes of course it does, but not as an end in itself.  We should never tire in our attempts to promote the reputation of the areas we serve, to attract visitors and inward investment, and boost local economies.  

The reputations of our councils and their leadership are important to ensure we have the right level of influence to get the best deal for local people, and to make sure we can recruit the best staff to provide the best services.  

But reputation amongst residents has always been earned chiefly through the quality of services and the value for money we provide. More so now than ever, public service communications must show how it contributes to these ends.

I was privileged to be a judge in this year’s CIPR Excellence Awards in the Public Sector category. The winning entry should serve as an inspiration to public service communicators. South Wales Fire and Rescue Service came up with an innovative campaign aimed at young people to tackle a decades old local problem of deliberate fire-starting on the grasslands of the Valleys.  

The problem had cost hundreds of thousands over the years, as well as harming animals and the natural environment. The winning campaign found a fresh new approach which not only had a significant and measurable social impact on the problem, but also had a very tangible financial benefit to the local area in money saved.  

The campaign was subject to some of the most rigorous evaluation I have seen and proved its worth beyond doubt. South Wales Fire and Rescue ticked all the boxes: creativity, value for money, evaluation and real outcomes for local people.  

They effectively changed behaviour that had been ingrained in families and communities through generations. They showed what first class communications can achieve, and as money gets tighter we should all be looking to examples like this to show how we as communicators can directly contribute to improving the areas we serve and helping to save money. That is the best way we can promote reputation, not just of local public services, but of our profession’s place within those services.   

 

Polly Rance is Chair of the CIPR’s Local Public Services Group, and head of media and external relations at the London Borough of Hackney

The CIPR Local Public Services Group Conference 2011 ‘Hard Times: A Conference for the Age of Austerity’ was announced this week. It will take place on 13th/14th October 2011 at the CIPR’s Headquarters in London.  See www.cipr.co.uk/lps2011 for more details.  

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