Cormac Smith - Ready for the fight

The chairman of local government PR body LGcomms is battling to maintain high standards despite budget cuts. John Owens reports.

Getting ready for action: Cormac Smith (Credit: Tom Campbell)
Getting ready for action: Cormac Smith (Credit: Tom Campbell)

Emerging from the High Court during last year's Dale Farm saga, the leaders of Basildon Council faced an intensely hostile crowd.

The prolonged battle by the council to remove Travellers from a site in Essex had already been labelled 'ethnic cleansing' by The Guardian and criticised by the EU's human rights watchdog, the ECRI. Accompanying council leader Tony Ball, head of comms for the council Cormac Smith confronted the situation in typical fashion.

'There was a baying crowd and no police around,' says Smith of that day last summer. 'Tony asked me what we should do. I told him we're going to walk through the crowd with our heads up. We're going to do that because we're right.'

Smith, 49, has presence. Built as solidly as the chunky golden loop wrapped around his ring finger, he talks in firm Irish tones bolstered by a certainty that comes from getting things done.

It is a self-belief that will now be key in a battle that seems set to run even longer than the Dale Farm High Court drama.

As chairman for local government PR body LGcomms, he spearheads a fight to maintain standards in the face of slashed budgets and decimated teams. It is a situation about which he has no illusions. 'It has been painful in government, but we are facing a lot more,' acknowledges Smith.

He is, however, a man with a plan. He pledges to top up the credibility of the comms sector by developing young leaders and increasing influence with the councils' executive power players. He also wants to retune how comms works, and look at it as 'science' rather than 'art'.

He accepts that comms must shift towards a balance of 'telling people how good we are at the things that mean the most to them' and managing expectations of the public during a time when all councils have less money to spend.

Dublin-born Smith's path to local government has been unconventional. Rejected by the Irish army as a teenager, for a long time his driving passion was sport. After a brief stint marketing at Guinness, he became a fitness trainer, before spending two years in the British and Irish bobsleigh team.

With contacts at the national papers fostered by his father, who worked at the printers for the now-defunct The Irish Press, Smith also took on comms for the bobsleigh team.

This led to his loss of PR innocence when he was ridiculed by one journalist about his naive enthusiasm for the team - a memory that sticks with him to this day, and one from which he has learned.

After two years in the sled, he began managing a gym in Derry - 'not a town you could hide in' as he puts it - that brought together Protestants with Catholics.

His path then veered towards the pharma industry before finally joining the public sector in 2000. It was director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council Alex Aiken who truly brought Smith into the local government fold. Aiken describes him as 'the real thing'.

'Cormac is authentic in everything he does, whether it's representing Ireland at bobsleigh, to setting up fitness centres or championing the cause of homosexual equality in Soho,' says Aiken. 'That authenticity is the basis of his credibility and authority with CEOs, but his sense of humour is also legendary.'

Westminster City Council, a leader in local government comms, recruited Smith as a consultant in 2003 and would deploy him to councils where he was needed most. Eventually it was Basildon, on the cusp of tackling Dale Farm, that called for help.

'I remember heading down to the site and thinking I don't know how I am going to do this,' says Smith, candidly. As it was, he led messaging based on three principles - legality, equality and humanity - and is convincing when he remembers that, after his initial uncertainty, he never felt he was going to lose control of the situation.

He admits he felt sympathy 'on a human level; these people were going to lose their homes', but maintains he was '100 per cent morally happy' with the situation.

Now, Smith is fully focused on moving forward. When a former colleague's comment that he is the type to 'kick the door down' to get attention is jokily put to the childhood devotee of spaghetti Westerns, he is keen to paint something more nuanced, even if he admits that this aspect of his character is 'part of the picture'.

Pointing to his work as LGcomms chairman with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, he says it is far more important to 'build bridges and allegiances'.

And, having braved hostile crowds outside the High Court, if he can strike this balance when fighting for local government PR professionals in today's harsh climate, it promises to be a potent combination.

CV

2012 Chairman, LGcomms

2011- present Head of comms, Basildon Borough Council

2010 Senior comms adviser, Sevenoaks Borough Council

2008 Senior comms adviser, London Borough of Sutton

2007 Senior comms adviser, London Borough of Harrow

2005-11 Head of comms, London Borough of Richmond upon Thames

2003-present Comms consultant, Westminster City Council

2001 Deputy head of comms, London Borough of Waltham Forest; press officer, Westminster City Council

2000 Press officer, Transport for London

1994 Media relations specialist, InterScience

CORMAC SMITH'S TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

In 2001, I joined Westminster City Council for a four-month stint in the country's busiest council press office. I was dealing with central London issues and the opportunity to work with some great public servants convinced me that local government really mattered and provided huge professional challenges.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Alex Aiken, director of comms and strategy for Westminster City Council, is the most challenging man I have worked with. He is driven and unrelenting, but also very creative.

He is also hugely loyal and someone of the highest integrity. Also, Mark Chataway from my early days in pharma PR - he was very influential.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

Everything you do can affect a reputation - your employer's reputation, your clients' reputation, but most of all, your own reputation.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Apart from ability to do the job, the key qualities are integrity, emotional intelligence and courage.

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