NEWS ANALYSIS: PR to take a front seat at troubled Tower Hamlets - After five long years of apparent chaos, troubled London borough Tower Hamlets is putting its PR function on a firm footing. Chris Mahony reports

The difficulty party politicians have with ideological neutrality

can make PR in the charged world of local government a tense balancing

act.



This is all the more pertinent in Tower Hamlets, a borough which

suffered hugely from the demise of the local docks and despite

regeneration around the Isle of Dogs, remains one of London's poorest.

It is also ethnically mixed with more than a third of the inhabitants

coming from non-white households - and has provided a fertile ground for

far right political parties.



As Haringey Council communications head Siobhan Crozier prepares to take

up the same post at Tower Hamlets, she is hoping to bring stability to a

unit subject to almost permanent revolution since 1995.



Both her predecessors have been made redundant, with three restructuring

and rebrandings of the communications structure and functions in that

time. Her appointment brings an end to an 18-month gap in command.



The council maintains that the redundancies were the result of genuine

restructuring of the department, in which case the councillors clearly

developed a taste for dismantling and re-assembling their PR team.



Given the history of the council - eight years of Lib Dem control was

broken by a resurgent Labour in 1994 - it is no surprise that there is

an alternative view.



This holds that the first PR boss to be judged and made redundant, Tony

O'Regan, was ousted by a Labour administration which suspected him of

sympathising with the ancien regime. 1994's bitter elections ended a

turbulent year in the borough, which included the election of a BNP

councillor.



Local journalists privately back claims from Lib Dem leader Janet Ludlow

that this suspicion of Lib Dem tendencies finally did for O'Regan, even

if he lasted two years after Labour regained control.



Ludlow says: 'After 1994, there was a degree of Labour mistrust toward

communications. That was stupid because O'Regan was good and neutral.

They expected every officer to say the Labour administration was the

best thing since sliced bread. He was badly treated.'



She insists the upheaval since O'Regan's departure in 1996 stems from

what she claims is Labour's inability to see that the unit exists to

communicate on behalf of the council, rather than just its ruling

group.



O'Regan stresses that he worked with Labour for two years with 'no

difficulty at all'. He says the merger of communications with a part of

the finance department left two candidates for one job.



'I was the unsuccessful candidate,' he says. 'It was done properly. I

have no regrets. I took over the top job in 1984. It was always politics

at the sharp end. I kept well out of it.'



O'Regan backs the theory that he, like his successor Peter Davies, was a

victim of the council's desire for change.



A year after O'Regan's move, the then CEO Sylvie Pierce criticised the

press office's 'poor performance', telling a Labour member in a leaked

memo that despite its size - it had 17 staff - it delivered neither a

proper service nor value for money.



This might be slightly unfair given the interregnum, the criticism

coming three months before Davies arrived in March 1998.



Local reporters have sympathy for the press office, and say its

personnel were hampered by the political turmoil within the ruling

Labour group or by officers who were less than enthusiastic about PR and

its local practitioners.



That Labour has been in turmoil is undeniable: it has changed leader

almost every year since 1994, often in coups. Current leader Michael

Keith, refused to contribute to this piece.



But Ludlow says the procrastination since Davies' departure in 1999 is

rooted in this turmoil: 'They are too busy squabbling among themselves

to get the communications unit up and running.'



Veteran local government PRO Lorraine Langham defends the authority's

track record. She has reconfigured the service since arriving as a

consultant in January.



While disagreeing that political difficulties prompted the unit's recent

traumas, Langham says: 'Local government is a tough place and these are

some of the most difficult PR jobs. But it is rare for somebody to be

made redundant as a result of political changes.'



She acknowledges that CEOs and communications bosses are the most likely

targets for a new regime. Indeed, she joins Carl Welham, chair of the

IPR local government group, in pointing to the strict legal framework

requiring neutrality. Welham says barely one per cent of PR

professionals in local government would experience the upheaval which

befell Tower Hamlets.



The pair agree that making the communications head a member of the

management team is crucial. Langham says Tower Hamlets struggled to fill

the top PR job last year because it did not carry this status.



Crozier will have a seat at the top managerial table, one reason why the

incoming boss believes that despite a turbulent recent past, the future

is bright.



Asked if she is confident of balancing competing demands of strident

politicians, Crozier says: 'Local government is challenging to work in

but the role of head of communications is to promote the policies and

services of the council.'



So can she bring some much-needed stability? 'It seemed clear to me the

structure has been set and the leadership is clear about what it wants,'

she comments.



The focus now, she says, is on filling seven job vacancies.



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