COUNCIL RANKINGS: Hartlepool Borough Council, with only four comms staff, was awarded an 'excellent' CPA rating

BIRMINGHAM CITY COUNCIL; 20 STAFF

Birmingham City Council, one of the largest social services organisation in Europe, was given a 'weak' Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) rating by the Audit Commission last December.

Unfortunately for the comms team, the CPA report said there was no overall communication strategy in place. This is a criticism head of communications Myra Benson denies.

'We review the communications strategy on a regular basis, but obviously have scrutinised it in light of CPA assessment,' she says.

As a result, this year, the PR team has broadened the news content of its monthly employee magazine, Inner Voice, and relaunched and redesigned Education Now, the magazine for education service employees.

In addition, a few months ago, the team launched Birmingham Inline, a corporate intranet that contains a daily news briefing, information on personnel and directorate activities, plus features and a regular column from the chief executive.

The council publishes a fortnightly tabloid newspaper, The Birmingham Voice, which is distributed to over 400,000 households in the city. And last year, the metropolitan authority set up a contact centre, which, it claims, has impacted positively on residents' dealing with the council.

Following its annual MORI poll of locals, one of the biggest current media campaigns is 'You Are Your City', a civic pride initiative aimed at making Birmingham cleaner and greener. This has received mainly positive media coverage, as have a number of initiatives to regenerate city housing estates.

BLACKBURN WITH DARWEN BOROUGH COUNCIL; 6 STAFF

Crowned joint Council of the Year by the Local Government Chronicle in 2002, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council was awarded an 'excellent' CPA rating by the Audit Commission. Since last December, the council has dedicated £1m to a 'Thrash the Trash' initiative to combat litter, graffiti and fly-tipping, and bring environmental services up to scratch.

For the comms team, this has involved talking to schoolchildren and publicising various elements of the scheme with the local media, including an endorsement from pop group Liberty X at the recent council-funded Arts in the Park music festival.

'Not all of the coverage is positive, but we're trying to get a couple of relevant stories out each week,' says principal PR and comms officer Anne Taylor. Her team is also working to explain the benefits of Blackburn's initiatives to residents, including the introduction of online payment systems and access to services, to meet the Government's 2005 deadline.

The department has relaunched its community newspaper, The Shuttle, and is in the process of rolling out quarterly newsletters containing more localised information for each of the 18 neighbourhoods within the borough.

Internal comms is delivered via team briefings, events and a magazine for the council's 5,000 staff. However, these activities will be reviewed next month with a view to making improvements. 'We want to look at how we communicate face to face and ensure we have effective ways of reaching and getting feedback from staff do not have access to a PC,' says Taylor.

CROYDON COUNCIL; 6 STAFF

With 330,000 residents, Croydon has the highest population of any London borough and is home to a significant number of refugees and asylum seekers.

Given a 'good' CPA rating, the communications team of six focuses the bulk of PR activity on media relations. Local newspapers, including the Croydon Advertiser and free titles the Croydon Post and Croydon Guardian report council business. However, the PR team also produces a monthly residents' magazine, Croydon Reports, delivered to the 150,000 households within the borough.

In terms of input into the council's overall strategy, head of press and PR Richard Gibbs is involved in weekly meetings with the council leader, deputy, chief executive and head of policy. 'But we're rather more informal about this arrangement than many other councils,' he says.

For the past three years, in addition to delivering and improving its core services, the council has focused on two main initiatives. The first, Smarter Croydon, is targeted at the environment and seeks to address such problems as graffiti, fly-tipping and abandoned vehicles. Despite the borough enjoying one of the lowest crime rates in London, the PR team works to support the council and its partners, including the police, with Safer Croydon.

'There is a gulf between the fear of crime and the reality of crime, so we have to work harder, together with the police and the media, to give the population a sense of proportion,' says Gibbs.

HARTLEPOOL BOROUGH COUNCIL; 4 STAFF

With 4,000 staff serving a population of 91,000, the borough is the second smallest unitary authority in England, with more than half of its residents living in wards that are among the most deprived in the country.

Yet last December, the Audit Commission awarded the council an 'excellent' CPA rating.

The Commission praised the council for its services and the clarity and focus staff and councillors bring to delivering improvements. With only four members, the PR team is small, so it places a strong emphasis on media relations. 'We try to operate a very proactive media relations team and foster a media-friendly culture within the council, right down to the 4,000 staff who are out there acting as ambassadors,' says PR officer Alastair Rae.

The team produces a quarterly community magazine, Hartbeat, and a bi-monthly internal newsletter, as well as managing the corporate brand, and the development and implementation of the council's e-government project.

The PR department also sells its services to council-related organisations, such as the government-funded Hartlepool New Deal for Communities - a ten-year project dedicated to new housing and environmental improvement - and local strategic project The Hartlepool Partnership.

Two years ago, the PR team saved Hartbeat from the chop, by introducing a policy of selling editorial space to some of its partners, thereby reducing the magazine's annual budget. More recently, the team has been working with the local media to explain the transfer of the council's housing stock to a new not-for-profit landlord, Housing Hartlepool.

LEEDS CITY COUNCIL; 13 STAFF

The second-largest metropolitan district council in England, Leeds City Council received a 'good' CPA rating from the Audit Commission.

Two years ago, the council undertook a rolling communications review.

'We wanted to look at what was working well and where we needed to make improvements,' says acting chief officer for the executive support team James Rogers.

In internal communications terms, this resulted in the formal adoption of a plain-English policy throughout the organisation. As such, there is now an ongoing training and development process, to ensure that all frontline staff communicate in a way that residents understand.

The council is also planning to introduce structured team briefing sessions, so employees understand the local authority's key issues, values and priorities.

All 325,000 households across the city receive a Leeds newspaper from the council five times a year. But the bulk of media relations work supports its priorities of community safety and the environmental agenda.

Recent campaigns include 'Operation Cape', where the council undertook a one-day blitz, serving a large number of anti-social behaviour orders on troublemakers on local housing estates. Similarly, the policy of crushing unclaimed abandoned cars attracted the attention of the national media when the council threatened a discarded Rolls Royce - the vehicle's owner eventually came forward.

This week, Helen Edwards joined Leeds from York City Council to head the communications team and implement the results of the communications review.

LONDON BOROUGH OF WALTHAM FOREST; 23 STAFF

With a corporate assessment report describing the overall picture as 'one of low quality and inconsistency', the London Borough of Waltham Forest, received a 'poor' CPA rating.

The council took this damning verdict on the chin, however, and published a recovery plan. Last November, the authority boosted its communication staff numbers, and pulled its PR services under one roof.

'What we can do now is provide an integrated, comprehensive communications service to the wider organisation, which simply didn't exist before,' says head of communications Seth Brook.

For staff, this involves posters, monthly management seminars and regular features in the monthly internal magazine, Branching Out.

However, residents are communicated with on an issues-led basis. The monthly community magazine, WFM, focuses on key areas for council improvement, such as promoting the benefits of child adoption and fostering, and boosting the recruitment of social workers.

With one of the highest crime rates in outer London, crime and anti-social behaviour is the number one concern for local people. As such, the council has done much to publicise its partnership with the police and gives information on crime prevention to residents.

This July, the election of Clyde Loakes to council leader allowed the authority further media opportunities to explain its vision for the future and how far it has progressed against recovery targets.

The communications team also hopes to use the redevelopment of Walthamstow town centre to improve the area's profile in London.

ROTHERHAM METROPOLITAN BOROUGH COUNCIL; 11 STAFF

Praising the authority for how far it has progressed in a short time, the Audit Commission gave Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council a 'fair' rating.

Not bad for an authority that, in the past, was accused of apathy, and whose communications team was set up virtually from scratch, in May 2000, by current joint comms head Eileen Brooks. 'This was after the council was criticised by external local government consultants who said "communications in Rotherham doesn't work",' says Brooks.

However, within 18 months, her team was commended in the Local Government Chronicle Awards for Excellence in Communication. And today, the department handles media relations, produces a quarterly newspaper for residents - Rotherham Council Matters - develops publicity campaigns and offers advice to council members and officers.

Other responsibilities include issues around plain English, policing the corporate brand, organising media training and producing a regular leader's and chief executive's message for staff.

One of the issues closest to residents' hearts is the environment. As such, the team supports Streetpride, one of the biggest initiatives of its kind in the country, which tackles the borough's appearance.

Other major media campaigns include a new recycling project and the unveiling of RBT Connect, a joint venture company set up by the council and BT to install the latest technology and improve costs.

One of the major challenges for the communications team is encouraging the borough's young people to embrace Rotherham's new businesses, in the wake of South Yorkshire's collapsed traditional coal and steel industries.

SHEFFIELD CITY COUNCIL; 10 STAFF

With its crippling financial legacy, Sheffield City Council is pleased to have received a 'good' CPA rating from the Audit Commission.

'The challenge now is to move from "good" to "excellent",' says head of marketing and communications Carl Welham.

With efficiency and cost-effectiveness high on the council's agenda, there is a strong reliance on the PR element of the communications mix, with each directorate afforded its own PR officer. This is backed by the size and activity of the local media, which includes the Sheffield Star, Sheffield Telegraph and roving reporters for ITV and BBC TV's regional news.

As the council is keen to attract inward investment, a key communications target is taking Sheffield's heritage in steel to newer industries, such as biotechnology and IT. For this reason, one communications team member is dedicated to national media relations work alone.

In addition, the communications department works with local media to support the council's two main policies. The first is a civic pride campaign, called Cleaner, Greener, Safer.

The second - Closing the Gap - is designed to avoid the pitfalls of creating a two-tier economy in the face of urban renewal. 'It's not just about swanky city-centre flats and wine bars,' says Welham. 'We want the whole city to move forward together. As such, the council has campaigned to win £500m to regenerate its housing estates.'

Working on the principle that the most valued format for receiving information is having your manager talk to you, there is a strong emphasis on face-to-face briefings and events for the council's 20,000 staff.

SOUTHAMPTON CITY COUNCIL; 16 STAFF

Ranked 'good' by the Audit Commission, Southampton City Council's communications team has two main functions: telling residents about the local services available, and promoting the city on the international stage - Southampton is one of Europe's leading cruise liner ports and the starting point of the BT Global Challenge and the Volvo Ocean Race.

Publications form part of the team's responsibilities, with all 110,000 households in the city receiving City View, a bi-monthly community magazine.

Its internal staff magazine, In View, is about to relaunch after having been axed three years ago.

The bulk of PR activity is in media relations, with the team handling 3,800 media enquiries a year and producing 600 news releases.

Key issues for residents include a new waste management scheme, under which the weekly domestic rubbish collection is switching to every other week, alternating with a new domestic recycling programme.

This has involved leaflets to residents, local media Q&A sessions and visits to every household by the waste management team.

To identify areas for improvement, the team recently asked external agency Grant Riches to review its communications. This revealed the need for a specific post to look after web activities.

'Receiving a good CPA rating can be a double-edged sword for some councils, who may be tempted to become complacent, but we know we have to look at how to improve our services and how we operate,' says media and communications manager David Bennett.

WESTMINSTER CITY COUNCIL; 17 STAFF

Westminster City Council, which received an 'excellent' CPA rating, is unique in that it plays host to the capital's most influential opinion formers, while the influx of commuters and tourists adds an extra one million to its population each day.

As such, the comms team has three main audiences: residents and visitors, the council's 6,000 staff, plus contractors and what it calls the London Village, which includes the Queen and members of Parliament.

Media relations forms the core of its communications, although the marcoms team produces a bi-monthly magazine, Westminster Reporter for residents, and The Street Action Bulletin for businesses. The team also publishes a free online newsletter for those interested in Westminster matters.

According to a city survey conducted by MORI in January, 47 per cent of local people agree the council makes a real effort to communicate with residents about its activities and decisions, while in another part of the survey, 43 per cent thought the council communicates quite or very well.

Key comms issues include publicising the council's battle to win more money for London from the government. 'We think London is the golden goose for government, so should receive better funding,' says news manager Suzanna White. The team is also working to highlight the potential impact on city management, street cleanliness and quality of life for its residents, should the Government's proposals for a new licensing regime go through.

In the first initiative of its kind in England, in April, the council won a one-year contract to manage communications for the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames.

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