OPINION: Essex comes up trumps with image makeover

When I worked as a press officer for the Engineering Union every summer I used to tell the union officials to give me any story no matter how trivial because it was bound to make the news.

It was very rare for anyone to come up with a story for the very good reason that they too were off on their holidays and didn't much care what happened when they were away. I confess that I too was half-hearted in this endeavour and even more so when I worked for Gordon Brown.

As I was always away myself in August I didn't worry too much about the news, in fact I positively didn't care. How wrong I was. Last week I hosted the morning phone-in show for BBC Radio London and what was in the news was very important to the show.

On the first day I diligently went through all the papers and to my horror there was hardly a story worth talking about.

How on earth was I going to fill three hours of topical chat? Fortunately, the BBC employs professional producers who know how to handle a phone-in with very little to talk about. I confess that we deliberately decided to talk about some issues that weren't really in the news but we knew would get the listeners ringing in.

Apart from the home banker of a John Prescott story there is usually at least one other politician left in England to talk to the press and Jack Straw did us proud by making some comments on the euro. There was nothing much new in what he said, but there is nothing like a good old row about Europe to get the listeners ringing in.

After a couple of days, as the politicians went silent, I was full of praise for the more diligent press officers out there. It became clear that many PROs had saved a number of stories for August and I can assure you that they were well rewarded. None more so than the PR team at Essex County Council. Its PR team leaked a story to just one paper - The Daily Telegraph - about their campaign to improve the image of Essex. They were rewarded with a half-page spread extolling the virtues of this much-maligned county.

The subject of Essex - with most callers praising the place - took up much of my three-hour phone in. Not only that, it made all the TV bulletins too, also hungry for stories on a slow news day. The Essex mob must have been delighted, especially as all the national newspapers followed the story up the next day.

The leader of the council refused to tell me exactly how much they were to spend on their new image makeover though I suspect it was very little.

The councillors must have been very pleased to know that Essex girl jokes are old hat and that people talk more about the beautiful villages than the beautiful, but supposedly stupid women. The fact is Essex doesn't need to spend money on an image makeover now as it's got millions of pounds worth of free publicity thanks to a shrewd PR department.

It wasn't just Essex which was hard at work last week. I lost count of the number of surveys produced that made the news simply because there was nothing else to report. There was Transport 2000 which told us what we already knew - that roads were too crowded - but in a fresh way. Then there was some DTI report that told us that we all work too hard.

Now the holiday season is over and the political conference season is around the corner, placing stories will become that much more difficult.

The next time I tell someone to prepare plenty of stories for August I will have all the evidence to show them that it actually works.

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