The culture of spin has become synonymous with this Government's communication methods, more so than any of its predecessors. And with the media relentless in its pursuit of honest answers, better communication between politicians and the people who vote them in remains vital.
The quest for improved communications has filtered through to local government.
Councils recently came under the spotlight when the Audit Commission commissioned a MORI survey of 1,700 people, which showed local authorities were associated with poor quality leadership and management.
While respondents were largely positive about services and trusted staff members, they thought councils were unlikely to admit or learn from mistakes, were suspicious of the political environment, and that they were not interested in their views.
At this grass-roots level, poor headlines in the local media damage morale and could have a political cost at the ballot box. And no amount of spin, glossy leaflets or funky slogans on the councils' part will persuade residents they are being provided good services if the hard evidence isn't there.
Following the recent introduction of a local government assessment tool that means councils can no longer keep their performance hidden away, a minor revolution has occurred in some council PR offices.
The Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) - run by the Audit Commission - surveys a local council's services, giving them various scores that will lead to an overall description of excellent, good, fair, weak or poor. The first batch of standard assessments was published last December and covered county councils and unitary authorities. The next group will include district councils.
Councils can't ignore these new criteria. Even those viewed as excellent will have to give a reaction to the media, albeit a modest one, while those judged good downwards will have to explain the assessment and what they are going to do to improve their services, both to staff and residents.
One step to improve communications with residents has been an online toolkit entitled Connecting with Communities, developed by the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) with local government PR specialist consultants Marina Pirotta and Carol Grant. It offers a blueprint for improving comms that councils can adopt or cherry pick.
Pirotta is confident the toolkit has already made a positive impact on local government. 'I would say that with 3,000 visitors a month to the website, CEOs and senior officers are quickly realising after the CPAs that communication is an essential element of a local authority's output,' she says.
Working for change
However, Birmingham City Council, which registered a 'weak' score, did question the CPA's assessment tools, believing its definition of weak was too narrow. Despite this, says PR manager Audrey Geber, the council is reviewing procedures, including its comms strategy. Part of this has been to refer to IDeA's toolkit. Introducing improvements in internal comms, such as the launch of an intranet, have been a key element of change.
The city council is also expanding its monthly employee magazine and relaunching Education Now, a 28-page magazine published six times a year. So far, its contribution to reaching its community is an annual resident survey, conducted by MORI, for their opinions on council services.
'We are constantly looking at comms to see where it needs to be improved,' Geber explains. 'We have taken on board many of the CPA's recommendations, across the council.'
Yet, the question remains whether the local media has seen any improvements in council communications. Birmingham Post chief reporter Paul Dale, responsible for local government, claims he hasn't noticed any real change since the CPA last December.
'The people at the council are usually defensive, and that's a shame because the council does some good things,' he says. 'But they are also trying to turn things around in the social services department, which was heavily criticised and potentially led to them getting the weak rating.'
Swindon Borough Council scored a 'poor' in the CPA and, as a result, PR manager Sheila Roberts, with 13 years experience at Surrey County Council, was employed to turn communications around. Roberts claims Swindon has undergone a change in attitude among staff to improve comms, both internally and externally.
'Yes, there have been problems, and we're putting our hands up to that,' she admits. 'But these problems were more about the strategic direction of the council, rather than day-to-day services.'
Roberts, who leads a four-strong PR team, adds the council is finishing off a delivery plan on ways to improve services. Again, this leans towards internal comms, including a monthly staff newspaper and proposals for two-way communications briefing for staff.
While Cumbria County Council scored a 'fair' result, it has nevertheless created a new role of head of comms and information, who will report to the deputy CEO. The position will be filled in September.
The long-term view
Cumbria's media manager Brian Hough argues the CPAs do not take into account work in progress. 'We had a change in administration in 2001, since then changes have started to be made to the management structure and the decision-making process. That takes time to work its way through,' he states.
Hough says the comms team has looked at the toolkit, but not implemented it at present. Yet, the council's intranet is being upgraded, while a quarterly staff magazine will launch in August and its 130,000-circulation residents newspaper, also quarterly, is under review.
IDeA is also continuing with its bid to improve council communications.
IDeA principal comms consultant Pascoe Sawyers says the online tool kit is an ongoing exercise.
'We're always reviewing the toolkit, upgrading existing advice and looking to add new sections,' he says. 'As well as introducing three new categories - housing, the environment and transportation - added to the Connecting with Communities help desk in the autumn, we'll be adding one on consultation in August. Although the toolkit will be generic, it will show councils how they can best analyse surveys and consultations.'
With local government trying to better communications, regardless of whether or not they scored a poor or an excellent rating, will this signify an opportunity for external consultancies? While neither Swindon, Cumbria nor Birmingham have hired agencies, Geber adds that the council would not rule it out if it thought additional expertise was needed in a specific area.
Elsewhere, Marina Pirotta Communications has been hired by Kingston-upon-Thames and Islington councils, Sunderland council has decided to bring in DTW to conduct its own audit, while the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has commissioned Grant Riches Communications and MPC to write two new modules for the Connecting with Communities toolkit, on e-communications and comms for social services and education departments (PRWeek, 28 February).
Changes within local government communication techniques could provide lucrative opportunities as in-house PR teams look for external assistance. But conveying key and honest messages to communities should be a priority for councils, once they look beyond boosting internal communications. It is within the local media and at the ballot box that evidence this has been implemented should show through.
CASE STUDY HARINGEY - ROAD TO IMPROVEMENT
When Haringey was labelled 'weak' in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment, perhaps surprisingly, the London council was pleased.
'In truth, we were widely expected to get a 'poor' rating, so when we found out it was 'weak' we thought that represented progress,' says head of communications Julie Hollings.
'Morale at Haringey had been bad, particularly in light of the Victoria Climbie episode, and for three years, until the publication of the Laming inquiry in January, Haringey attracted continual bad media coverage, often when it had nothing to do with Victoria's death.' 'We also had problems with our education department, which prompted an outside company, Capita, to come in to help run things, and financial problems surrounding Alexandra Palace. So Haringey did not have a good image.'
But Haringey is turning the corner, she adds, saying: 'Our policy from the chief executive downwards was to be as honest as possible and explain what we would be doing. We viewed the CPA as a useful tool to improve services and communication.'
Haringey used the Connecting with Communities research, but tailored it to its needs.
Initiatives include the restructuring of the media team, which now numbers 30; the recruitment of an internal communications manager; plans to hold a managers' event every six months; increasing editions of the council newsletter from six to ten times a year; introducing an intranet update every day and giving department team briefings every four weeks.
The council also planned a proactive briefing for the media, attended by senior council members, a few days ahead of the 12 December CPA result, plus an explanation of what it entailed on the council's website - all using the Better Haringey logo.
Frontline staff were briefed to cope with resident enquiries, and all employees were updated on the council's intranet and through team briefings.
An embargoed press release was written for the media and spokespeople made available for pre-recorded 'sound bites' on the day of results. Staff were encouraged to come up with human interest stories to illustrate the improvements made by the council.
After the result was known, the press team was encouraged to drip feed new initiatives and updates on areas that were criticised in the CPA to the media. All the communications initiative had to work alongside the council's Corporate Assessment Action Plan in response to the result.
As a result, Haringey avoided widespread criticism after 'achieving' its weak status. While it did receive coverage in local papers, including the Ham & High and the Hornsey Journal Series - it didn't feature in the national press or the Evening Standard. Hollings agrees coverage was balanced and mentioned areas where the council and its plans for the Better Haringey campaign were praised.