Public Sector: Don't let media make you a villain

In the mind of a journalist, the world very neatly divides into angels and pantomime villains.

If the portrayal of your organisation or sector in the media triggers instinctive booing, it may not be fair yet you face an uphill struggle to change the mindset of most journalists.

What I have learned, however, after four years running the national press office for local government, is that the best way to confront this stereotyping is to stick your head over the parapet.

The knee-jerk reaction of journalists can be turned into an opportunity. There is nothing worse, for example, than when a national newspaper launches a campaign against you or your sector, but it also provides a great chance to get your messages out there.

Only last month, the Daily Mail campaigned against council wheelie bins. While Defra and WRAP, the Government's recycling body, declined to get involved, the LGA confronted the attack head on.

Yes, we got a predicted bloody nose in the Mail one day, but for the rest of the campaign, the newspaper and other media ran our messages about how local authorities are encouraging recycling to reduce landfill and keep down council tax bills. For a big chunk of the campaign, the paper's own website showed a majority of readers in favour of wheelie bins.

Another reason to stride on to the stage, despite the potential for mockery, is to deter pressure groups exploiting the stereotype. A typical council is involved in 800 activities. There is usually at least one pressure group per activity, and some raise their profile by attacking local authorities. Not only is it your duty to respond but you also need to let the pressure groups know your organisation or sector is not a pushover and to let journalists know there is another side to the story.

Best of all, however, and the most difficult option, is to try to position yourself in the media - at least now and then - as being on the side of the angels. If councils can do it without triggering shouts of 'behind you', then almost anyone can.

Edward Welsh is programme director, media and campaigns, at the Local Government Association.

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