Local government: Council alliance

A lack of in-house resources prompted two London boroughs to share communications skills. Simon Ellery reveals the benefits of this partnership, and asks how other authorities can put similar programmes in place.

Seconding a head of communications from one council to another, to recommend how to run their comms team more effectively, could potentially set the sparks flying if the second council disliked the suggested changes.

But last year one such scheme was put to the test between the flagship Tory borough of Westminster and the leafy London suburb of Richmond-upon-Thames.

The two Conservative councils started talks after an internal assessment found Richmond's comms unit to be under-resourced with just three full-time staff, and only fit for handling media enquiries.

This led to the borough's chief executive contacting Westminster head of comms Alex Aiken. An £80,000 one-year deal was struck, which saw Westminster take over the Richmond comms team and conduct an on-site Best Value comms review.

Under the terms of the deal, Aikenworked one day a week in Richmond while two deputies remain seconded to the borough.

So far Aiken has overseen the launch of Richmond's first residents' magazine, Arcadia, and stepped up relations with local, regional and national media.

Comms operation has improved

Senior Lib Dem council member David Williams admits the comms operation has improved.

'Richmond is improving its communications,' he says, 'and although the comms team is sending out the same number of press releases as previously, it is having better success with the press in terms of coverage and headlines.'

Williams maintains that the contract should have been tendered externally, but defenders of the deal say that immediate expertise was needed to ramp up the council's communications.

For most local government PROs, it came as no surprise that Westminster's communications unit landed the deal, given its 'excellent' rating in last year's Audit Commission Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA).

Senior local government communication experts agree that Richmond's communications was poor and would benefit from extra staffing levels.

'It is a local authority that serves an affluent population - it should have a unit like Westminster's,' one senior source says.

Richmond's cabinet is poised to act on the now-completed Best Value review, released on 13 January.The review, which took place between June and November last year, made a staggering 22 recommendations, with a call to increase its annual spending on communications by at least £200,000.

It adds that the partnership with Westminster had improved media coverage, particularly with London-wide press and TV.

Indeed, the cabinet approved all the recommendations. Among them is a beefed-up corporate team, a new post of senior marketing officer to be part of the corporate team, and a new corporate lobbying group working to a set of priorities agreed by the cabinet.

Three options were suggested to boost corporate communications management when the Westminster contract expires; take it in-house, hire an external supplier or partnership with another authority.

Richmond has opted to continue with a working comms partnership for another year. Westminster is likely to pitch for the work again.

Meanwhile, a second senior spokesman seconded from Westminster to Richmond explained the problems that may arise with such council partnerships. 'The fact that this initiative was introduced was relatively difficult as we had no roadmap to base it on,' he says.

'While each comms team has all the same basic communications principles there is still the challenge of having to put them in place for an organisation with different issues and a different internal culture.'

Learning from each other

Westminster also came to Richmond so it could learn from Richmond's successful film unit: 'We made it very clear from the start that it was a two-way street,' adds the spokesman.

Aiken dismisses claims that Westminster's team had politicised Richmond's press office. 'We have been scrupulous in avoiding doing that. You have to ensure communications are run for the council and not for either of the political parties.'

All communications must be in accordance with the relevant codes of conduct for local government communications.

All the press releases have to go through a standard checking procedure before they are sent out, which includes the senior comms staff, the members, and the directors of the relevant departments.

Westminster and Richmond are not alone when it comes to councils opting for a shared comms partnership.

East London's Newham Borough Council is poised to open talks with local partners to explore sharing communications teams.

Newham Council head of communications Ian Tompkins says: 'We work extremely closely with the other public sector services so it seems silly not to share communications.'

The council's comms staff already works with members of the Your Newham partnership, which includes the fire service, the Primary Care Trust, police and probation services.

He says this is down to the fact that demarcations for residents do not exist 'at street level' so that, for example, in the case of anti-social behaviour many services are involved.

Ensure messages are consistent

'In communications terms all these message should be the same. If you are a resident all the messages you see should be about Newham,' he says.

The council oversees a communications action board involving all the comms teams from the other public sector services, which meets monthly.

This board has devised pro-active tactics to communicate with residents, including a 'teletext' information board in places such as colleges and the high street, along with roadshows, and it plans to launch a radio station this year. 'We are looking at how to expand this across East London,' Tompkins adds.

In a further example of local authorities looking to share comms staff, Orkney Island Council is to employ a communications assistant who will also work with the local NHS Trust.

The council's press officer left in October while the Trust's freelance press officer stopped working for the body shortly after. The council advertised its post, but was then contacted by the Trust as it was seeking to cut costs but bolster its communications.

Orkney Island Council personnel officer Richard Thomas explains: 'News from both organisations dominates the local press - we are the largest single source of news. Not only could we make savings without losing efficiency but we could exploit our common areas.'

Grant Riches Communications Consultants partner Carol Grant, co-author of Connecting with Communities with the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), says the public sector should work together.

'I think it is one of the great strengths of the public sector, and councils in particular - it is one thing that differentiates them from the private sector,' she says.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister-backed Connecting with Communities project, which last year produced a widely used online communications toolkit, is poised to launch several new modules covering environmental issues and member communications.

'I think we will see a lot more councils collaborating on communications in the future,' Grant adds.

Efforts to share skills have hit a new level in local government. The Institute of Public Relations is running mentoring schemes, and it is looking to expand a crisis comms register where councils share crisis expertise. At the same time, 12 delegates started on an IDeA-organised training programme this month in an effort to raise standards.

Despite the scepticism in some corners, Westminster has clearly shown it has provided Richmond with comms expertise. The fact remains that council comms executives have never had so many opportunities to share skills and should make more use of the resources at their disposal.

CASE STUDY - LOCAL PRESS

Richmond and Twickenham Times editor Paul Mortimer, who joined the paper in April last year, was initially concerned about the Richmond and Westminster comms partnership deal and described it as 'slightly worrying' at the time.

But he now claims to enjoy good relations. 'We are working with them pretty well,' he says. 'They are obviously good at PR. We have had some confrontation with them, but they have come round. If we are pushing them for some fairly big stories they will deliver them at the end of the day.'

He says the comms team has also come up with several good ideas for coverage, and points to a six-part series on recycling, and a five-part series on youth work. Mortimer is now unconcerned about initial warnings by the former editor Malcolm Richards that the Tory administration had become 'paranoid' and wanted someone closer to their own way of thinking running the press office. Mortimer says: 'It (political bias) is not a concern.'

Despite this, he reveals an attempt by the press office to interfere with a press released story by the comms team that attacked Ken Livingstone's proposed 12 per cent Mayor's precept rise when that week's edition was at proof stage. 'We had the story on the front page and they tried to pull that. But we held our ground.'

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