Local councils are in image crunch

Local authority PR is one of the hardest and most thankless jobs in the business. That may sound like a bold statement, but the difficulties for council comms people are wider, more varied and more complex than those in any other sector.

There is at least one single-issue pressure group focusing on each of about 800 different services provided by a council. The TaxPayers' Alliance, the Campaign for Weekly Waste Collection, NSPCC, Help the Aged, Scope, the English Care Home Association, Friends of the Earth, CPRE and Liberty are but a few of the groups that will condemn councils for taking a certain course of action, and this requires council PR people to defend the authority's actions.

Then there are the opposition politicians in any given council, who will scrutinise its work and raise issues in the media. This is all part of a healthy democracy, but is also a challenge for local authorities to ensure that the issues raised are valid investigations and not just a constant 'drip drip' of bad headlines aimed at damaging councils' core reputation.

There are also opposition politicians at a national level who sometimes use local authorities as a stick with which to beat the Government.

Finally, there is central government itself. The Department of Health will defend doctors, nurses and the NHS to the hilt, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families will rebut negative stories about teachers or schools. In fact, every government department will defend the people and organisations they represent - except one. Time and again, the Department for Communities and Local Government will criticise the very bodies that it represents inside government. When things go right in local government, central government takes the credit - when things go wrong, it blames the councils.

With so many services and employees performing innovative work, helping millions of people every day, there are myriad opportunities for councils to get good news stories out there. But it is not easy. It takes a continual focus on developing proactive stories, rather than spending the entire time fire-fighting.

Richard Stokoe is head of news, Local Government Association.

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