OPINION: News Analysis - Cavalry soon to relieve harassed council PROs - Local councils are struggling to implement a raft of tough Government PR directives, but help may soon be at hand, says Joe Lepper

Fergus Emleton-Black has no formal PR training. As senior

communications and committee services officer at Berwick-Upon-Tweed

district council, he is the authority's only PRO - and then for only a

few hours a week.



He has no budget and, for the four years he has been in the job, he has

had to improvise. This month, he has struck a deal with local radio

broadcasters to offer free media training to councillors.



The worry for local government is that Emleton-Black is not alone.



According to figures from the Local Government Association (LGA)

(PRWeek, 10 August), a third of all councils have no full-time

designated PRO. Dozens more cope with just one PRO to implement the

Government's agenda of local government modernisation.



Council PROs are being forced to upgrade their online communications as

part of the 'e-government' agenda. By 2005, all residents should be able

to carry out electronic business with councils, such as paying council

tax.



On top of this, the Local Government Act requires PROs to implement a

full communications and consultation project for referendums on directly

elected mayors.



Given the usual workload of profile-raising, press release writing and

crisis management, this is hardly a persuasive advert for working in

local government PR.



But hope is on the horizon. A range of measures is to come into force

over the next year to help council PROs deal with change.



Still in its embryonic stage is an initiative by the Department of

Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), which is responsible

for the modernisation agenda. A working group, overseen by local

government minister Nick Raynesford, has been set up linking DTLR

officials, the LGA, council watchdog the Improvement Development Agency

(IDeA) and a host of council PROs.



The minutes of this group's 23 July meeting, leaked exclusively to

PRWeek, reveal that a full study by Mori and academics from Cardiff and

Birmingham universities, is on the verge of being commissioned. This

will, for the first time, present lists of the best and worst-performing

councils in terms of communications. Help will be given to bad

performers and they will be reviewed to ensure improvements have

occurred.



The group is also about to recruit two public sector specialist PR

agencies: Marina Pirotta Communications and Grant Riches Communications

Consultants.



They will help produce a best practice toolkit for PROs, the main

beneficiaries of which is expected to be councils with little or no

communications function.



This toolkit could be launched at the LGA conference next July.



Society of County and Unitary Public Relations Officers (Scupro) chair

Julie Hollings is upbeat. She says: 'This is very exciting and will

provide a timely aid for council PROs.'



Nor is it just the DTLR that is acting. The IPR local government group

has teamed up with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives

(Solace) for two further aids.



First, a crisis network will be launched at the IPR Local Government

conference in September. This will enable PROs with experience in crisis

management to be seconded to other authorities that are dealing with

crises.



Second, and also at the conference, a mentoring scheme will be

launched.



IPR group vice-chair James Flynn says: 'There are PROs, particularly in

smaller councils, who are carrying out media relations, campaigns and

marketing, and are probably handling the mayor's diary as well. This is

a bizarre situation. Help is needed and we want to get involved.'



The LGA has now completed its first full survey of council PR

functions.



According to the survey, there is a widespread breakdown in

communications between PROs and senior managers.



More than half of council PR teams do not show councillors and

management their monitoring and evaluation reports on media

strategy.



Just one per cent of councils have met the IDeA's top communications

standard. Councils must meet strict criteria on strategy, training and

consultation to achieve this.



But although the present looks grim for many councils, a climate of

change is edging its way across the sector. The survey shows that 80 per

cent of councils will either increase or maintain their communications

budget next year.



And three-quarters of councils said communications was a priority. The

number of councils without a single designated PRO has fallen from 210

to 132 in the past four years.



LGA chief executive Brian Briscoe says it is vital that councils

continue to embrace PR: 'It is clear there are real opportunities for

the communications function to play an increasingly influential role

within local authorities and I am pleased most authorities have agreed

communications is a priority.



'The objective is to ensure it is seen as a core competency and not just

a soft option.'



The LGA, the IPR and the DTLR appear optimistic that PROs will be able

to meet the challenge. Emleton-Black appreciates the effort they are

making. 'It's difficult to maintain the council's profile without

resources,' he says. 'I welcome any help with open arms.'



It is to be hoped that part-time and one-man band PROs are equally

convinced.



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