Fresh challenge for councils

IPR Local Government group chair Pat Gaudin tells Joe Lepper of council communications’ bright future

Local government press officers are no strangers to change. Many have been through various reorganisations and now, once again, central government is mooting major structural and financial changes for its local counterpart.

Earlier this summer, for example, the draft bill on regional assemblies was published, which is set to give the elected bodies wide-ranging powers over economic and social development. Furthermore, a review of how local government should be organised in ten years’ time has been launched; one idea discussed is local area agreements offering councils greater power over their budgets.

While these are important changes on the horizon, for IPR Local Government Group (LGG) chair Pat Gaudin the toughest challenge facing council communicators, as they prepare to gather in Canterbury next week for the annual IPR LGG conference, remains unaltered: ‘We need to balance both the development of communications competencies and strategic communications as well as the day-to-day work of issues such as media releases. There will always be a need for local communication.’

This year’s conference looks set to address a number of key issues where this kind of balancing act will be required. One is an important deadline for council PROs coming up next year, compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FIA), with residents being given greater access to recorded information, a topic high on the agenda for discussion at the conference.

‘Many local authorities will say that this won’t be a problem as they are open and honest about what they do,’ she says. ‘But there’s a fear on the comms side in some areas that this transparency hasn’t always been there, and some detail from the past, when perhaps there was a lack of transparency, will be dug up and they will have to deal with the outcome. It’s the unexpected that is concerning people.’

The conference will also look at crisis management, inviting a number of comms heads to speak about their experiences. LGG is set to launch a recruitment drive for more experts to join this crisis comms network at the conference. ‘It’s important to get over that this relates to every aspect of crisis comms from the major to the local,’ she adds.

E-government projects

Alongside the FIA deadline, local authorities’ comms departments will have another deadline to contend with – all councils will need to be able to provide ‘electronic government’ ahead of next year. Gaudin stresses that it’s important to recognise that these e-government projects can include a variety of delivery channels and does not just mean the internet. Projects can include digital TV, direct debit or telephone services: ‘Telephone continues to be the preferred method of contact in many cases, with a real person at the other end, so telephones, contact centres and one-stop shops are areas that comms teams increasingly have responsibility for.’

Despite the challenges ahead, it’s encouraging to see that the Government appears to want to see comms high on a council’s list of priorities. Local government comms departments, therefore, perhaps have good reason to be optimistic about the future. But Gaudin says it would be simplistic to paint a totally rosy picture of life as a council PRO.

Budget cuts are still a threat to all and, while many CEOs are seeing the importance of comms, the battle is far from won when it comes to grass-roots staff. ‘I have press officers tearing their hair out trying to get other departments to respond to them in the council,’ she says. ‘There are still staff who are fearful of the media, which is crazy. And sometimes you come across someone whose job is to do with street lighting or emptying bins and they just don’t see communications as a priority. That shows us the importance of communications and the need for us to work even harder.’

She also believes council PROs deserve a place at the top table, and that they should be given help in gaining the necessary skills to progress through the local government ranks.

It’s not just on an internal level that council PROs face challenging times. The conference will also address the difficulty in boosting the image and understanding of local government among the general public. ‘If you ask people what they think of their local council, there may be some who will say they don’t think much of it, but without realising what it actually does,’ she adds.

There is also still some concern among local government PROs that recently proposed changes, such as regionalisation, may ignore the need for local level PR and, if larger authorities are created, the spectre of job cuts looms large. But the Government’s language relating to local government also gives PROs cause for optimism, with ‘citizen engagement and participation’ listed high on the agenda for its ten-year review.

Indeed, many councils have beefed up their comms functions in recent years. Around two out of three now have written strategies for communicating with the media, compared with just two out of five two years ago, according to latest Local Government Association figures. (PRWeek, 4 June).

‘Some councils have worked hard to get communications right up there on the importance scale but there have, too, been others that have slipped back,’ says Gaudin, adding that it’s vital that PROs show they are giving value for money.

Gaudin indicates that thanks to the Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) programme, she remains optimistic about the future of local government comms. The CPA, which grades all council services and suggests improvements, is crucial for PROs as it places importance on effective communication with residents and staff. ‘CPA has really assisted us on the communications front. It has looked at consulting with the public and asked how well informed the public and council staff are,’ she says.

But, she adds, her optimism should not be confused with complacency and, through the central IPR, the LGG will continue to lobby to ensure that jobs are safe and local comms remains a priority. It is also looking to offer specific help to increasing number of PROs working for existing regional assemblies.

While issues such as regionalisation and ten-year strategy reviews are important for council comms departments, the day-to-day task of proving the worth of PR to CEOs, grass-roots staff and the wider public remains key. The conference will go some way to ensuring that answers and help are given.

ON THE AGENDA

Key issues being discussed at the IPR LGG 2004 conference;

  • The Freedom of Information Act and its implications for PROs

  • Internal communications

  • Crisis communications, from major disasters to local crises

  • Customer satisfaction

  • Communications and capping including advice from those affected

  • Council websites and the latest survey on the best and worst performers

  • Improving public understanding of local government

  • Lobbying

  • Leadership, training PROs to become part of the top table

WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGE?

Alex Aiken, head of comms, Westminster City Council and London Borough of Richmond

‘The pressure is on budgets and demonstrating value for money. Council communicators need to show that the work they do is improving the overall council ratings. That means rigorous research before embarking on PR campaigns and effective evaluation of the impact of them.

‘It’s critical we see a renewed emphasis on training – one-off conferences and occasional courses don’t represent the training that will deliver professional communicators’

Caroline McKinlay, head of comms, Nottingham City Council

‘One of the biggest issues is to balance the aspirations of the council leadership to promote Nottingham as a core city to both a national and international audience while dealing with localised issues.

‘We have a lot going on with the city development strategy. We are also involved with (local marketing partnership) Experience Nottingham.

‘We’re looking closely at how we communicate with local firms and getting smarter about how we communicate with employees in the city.’

Steve Jackson, PR manager, Lincolnshire County Council

‘A key issue for us has been reputation management.

We have had two major stories recently that have made us look more closely at it; one was the former council leader (Jim Speechley) being jailed for 18 months for misuse of public office.

‘As a result, an important message to get to our public is that services are continuing on as normal.

‘Also we will be doing more lobbying to ensure we are being adequately funded.’

Carl Welham, head of communication and consultation, Buckinghamshire County Council

‘Community leadership is the single biggest challenge currently facing local government. How we act as leaders shaping the whole range of local and national public services and the difference we are making to the quality of life of our residents – that is the key issue we need to tackle.

‘The opportunity is there for us to provide decisive leadership to our communities – the question we now face is are we up to the task?’

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