FOCUS: LOCAL GOVERNMENT; PR teams become local heroes

UNITARY CONCERNS: New look local authorities are relying on PR to explain the implications to the public STAFF COMMUNICATIONS: Informed employees are better able to cope with departmental re-organisation ISSUES MANAGEMENT: How local authority PR units fared in the wake of a series of violent incidents in schools

UNITARY CONCERNS: New look local authorities are relying on PR to

explain the implications to the public

STAFF COMMUNICATIONS: Informed employees are better able to cope with

departmental re-organisation

ISSUES MANAGEMENT: How local authority PR units fared in the wake of a

series of violent incidents in schools



Against a backdrop of re-organisation, budget cuts and social crises,

local authorities are placing increased importance on effective public

relations. Report by Margaret Hood



When local authority structures are turned on their heads on the first

of April, with the creation of new unitary councils, their metropolitan

cousins will be doubtless wishing them well, while suffering from a

distinct sense of deja vu. For they have been running the whole gamut of

local community services communication since 1974.



But what is mutually significant to both the re-organised unitary

authorities and the established metropolitan and London borough set-ups

(to the PR professional at least) is the dawn of, and recognition of,

communications skills within these often unwieldy and bureaucratic

structures and the increased salaries and status this entails.



Much attention has been paid to the fact that Hackney Council is

currently offering pounds 60,000 to the person who can organise its

communications, both internal and external. To many seasoned

professionalsoutside of local government, this sum will be peanuts. But

to other, local government employees in the public relations field, it

is a small fortune.



According to Lynda Denyer, head of PR press and information at Lambeth,

any local authority paying more than pounds 18,000 to a PR professional

is well on the way to recognising the complexities of the job.



‘Some see the head of communications as a job that falls in the pounds

16,000 to pounds 18,000 salary bracket,’ she says. ‘But it all depends

on the press attention a borough is getting. In London established

professionals are employed. Outside of the capital you may find an

individual struggling to convince a council that they would get a much

better image if they were more focused.’



Lambeth is about to advertise for a head of communications and

marketing, although the salary on offer has yet to be revealed. And

Knowsley District authority is recruiting a new head of media and

customer relations to replace Brian Harvey, now that he has been

promoted to assistant chief executive.



‘For public relations officers to make the jump to a more defined

management role means there is now better recognition of their

communications skills,’ says Harvey.



Other notable appointments include Beth Wagstaff to assistant chief

executive at Hertfordshire County Council and John Brown who has bee

promoted from head of Strathclyde public relations department to head of

PR for the City of Glasgow Council, taking over the daunting task of

communicating for a new unitary authority system.



In the Glasgow area, from 1 April, there will be 29 unitary councils to

replace a two tier system of 53 district councils and nine regional. In

the highest concentration of the Scottish population, Glasgow which has

19 district councils and one regional will be replaced by 12 unitary

authorities and, in Brown’s words: ‘a whole myriad of quangos’.



‘This is all very messy and very complex,’ says Brown. ‘We have to deal

with everything, which includes things like internal phone numbers

changing by the day. It is all quite fraught.’



Peter Dodson, the head of PR in the outgoing Cleveland County Council

and incoming head of Redcar and Cleveland, one of the four unitary units

to be formed, displays his north eastern wit and sense of irony when he

talks about the tasks ahead of him.



He explains that as the County Council is abolished, its services are

being split up among four new districts. Yet for ceremonial and related

purposes, for those areas north of the River Tees, we must use the Lord

Lieutenants of Durham. South Tees districts will be served by North

Yorkshire, although they are not in North Yorkshire. Other organisations

will operate under the name of Cleveland, they being the police force

and fire brigade, while marketing, training and enterprise activities

will still operate be under the name of Teesside (Teesside having been

created in 1969 and abolished in 1974.)



All of this poses quite a challenge to any public relations unit, most

of which are facing budget cuts across all council activity.



‘The district councils previously provided 20 per cent of local council

services and the County Council the rest - such as social services and

education, libraries, trading standards, highways and a whole lot more.

We will now be responsible for 100 per cent.So what is patently clear is

that there will be an increase in PR responsibilities for all of us. And

every inch of press coverage we achieve will be at the expense of

another district council,’ says Dodson.



‘On average we will handle at least one social services story a month

and a sensitive education story about once a week. From April the

district council public relations units will have to deal with those. I

suspect that there will be a very rapid learning curve among PR staff.’



Local government PR staff are now undoubtedly faced with a heavier

workload, combined with ever tighter budgets. And adding further to the

burden is a cut-back on staff from various divisions, such as social

services, whose overload is more often than not handed to the PR

faculty. Some would argue that this makes their role untenable,

especially as the press has never been so hot on reporting the latest

debacle over local politics or social services.



Others may claim that it has made their jobs more of a challenge, or

that their employers (elected councillors) have never needed them more,

or placed more prestige on their skills for providing a positive,

efficient pro-active media source as opposed to a defensive news

service.



Lambeth, for example, has been faced with the task of axing pounds 46

million from its annual budget and trimming its PR department from a

massive 50 staff in the mid-1980s to just three now, until two more key

appointments are made. And all this when it is being inundated over

calls about running the worst schools in the country, although the press

made little mention of the fact that a primary school in Brixton falls

into the national top 100 league terms of educational achievement.



Heather Rabbits, the Lambeth chief executive who was brought in to sort

out the extraordinary deficit run up by the Metropolitan Borough, has

already demonstrated her confidence in the power of public relations by

forming a new communications department whose brief is to communicate

with residents and employees, and not just the press.



At the same time, like all other local authority press departments, the

staff must work in a similar fashion to a private agency, by operating

under a service level agreement, undertaking contracts with each of the

executive directors of the council, and selling their services to each

division.



This looks unlikely to be a springboard for contracting out PR services

on a grand scale to the private sector. Although some services, such as

photography or magazine publishing, are contracted out to a varying

degree, Tory-controlled Westminster Council remains the only one to

employ a private PR agency.



The concept of contracting out increasingly complex public relations

responsibilities to the private sector is evidently and understandably

unpopular among in-house departments, who cite lack of day-to-day

contact as a precursor to an unsuccessful relationship.



Scottish councils have all but abandoned using external PR agencies and,

barring Westminster, English authorities have yet to make that leap.

According to Brown, Fife Council used a private public relations company

for 21 years, but has now established an in house service. And part of

Edinburgh’s regional council contracted out the PR brief, for a time.



Yet Andrew Hillier, senior account director of the PR consultancy John

Kendall Associates, who is contracted by the council to head up the

Westminster PR office and provide strategic consultancy, has an

understandably different view. His company took over at City Hall, one

of the country’s busiest local authority public relations units, last

September.



Hillier is currently fielding media enquiries on Westminster City

Council’s decision in the 1980s to re-house families in asbestos riddled

flats, as well as handling the local implications of the BSE issue to

schools and other social services.



‘Our handling of BSE and the Barratt report has shown very clearly to

the Council the advantages of our approach,’ says Hillier. ‘It is easy

for me to take a step back and take the global view, and particularly to

understand how the general public will see the story as interpreted and

presented by the media. Council officers are expert in the detail of the

work they do for residents but we provide a strategic, rather than just

tactical role.’



‘Because I recruit my own staff I can ensure that the team incorporates

a wide range of complementary specialist skills, most of which can only

be gained in the private sector. Also, I can allocate additional staff

to the team as and when I see fit. This flexibility would simply not be

possible if the office was staffed by the Council. I don’t know if any

other authorities will take this route. But it is working well at

Westminster.’



Hillier’s views are not generally shared by his public sector

contemporaries. But the basic, common premise, is that the days of a

downmarket image featuring a grubby council press office staffed by

former hacks are over, a conclusion backed by the increasing recruitment

of PR executives who are fresh from university and clutching a degree

certificate in public relations. These raw recruits are being lead by

former top grade journalists. Their progress will be interesting.



In-house issues: Maintaining staff morale



Internal communications within local authority public relations

departments have never been so crucial. With heart-rending cuts in

expenditure, it falls on the hapless PR person to bolster office morale

when redundancies are looming.



And when local authorities are going through the biggest re-organisation

since 1974, it is up to them to keep everyone informed.



On a more positive note, the increasing lip service paid to

communications means that the PR department’s remit is increasing amid

savage cuts all around. This can either be interpreted as an elevation

of the public relations function or as a challenging and stress-ridden

exercise.



Knowsley Council has probably gone furthest in developing internal

communications. It is currently advertising for a new employee

development officer who will be responsible for managing internal

communications among other development issues. And with outside help

from a consultancy specialising in internal communications, Smythe

Dorward Lambert, it has produced a so-called team briefing model. A

complex system which, via communication with individual council working

divisions, organises and filters information throughout departments,

which ultimately, and hopefully, means that everybody employed by the

council knows what is going on.



Other council approaches may not be so sophisticated, yet most are

putting limited resources into maximising their internal communications.

Lambeth’s 9,000 staff, recently reduced from 10,000, are being given a

staff newspaper for the first time since 1992. ‘An enormous amount of

house issues have to be addressed’ says Lambeth’s head of press and

information, Lynda Denyer.



Lambeth has produced the magazine in-house, yet an increasing amount of

publications are contracted out by councils.



Glasgow City Council, as the biggest employer in the city with a staff

of 38,000, pioneered the use of the BBC’s Select Services special

programmes to keep its staff informed, when numbers fell from a high of

104,000. It also resorted to putting messages into staff pay slips to

thank them for their hard work.



John Brown, head of public relations and marketing at the new Glasgow

Council, says that the exercise was ‘reasonably well appreciated’, but

adds: ‘Our biggest concern is to try and work with the personnel

department to try and inform people about what is going on. And we send

out a weekly vacancy list of jobs that are available.’



Case study: Unitary status for island life



The Isle of Wight may be an untypical case of a county adopting unitary

status, but as the only regional council now up and running, it

provides interest for those counties facing that prospect



Felix Hetherington, the authority’s chief executive, points out that it

stands apart from its new unitary cousins because it actually sought

unitary status. With a population of just 130,000 it was felt that three

separate councils were unnecessary.



Yet the island has its own idiosyncrasies and Hetherington is under no

illusion about his need for an efficient and enlightened PR function

and is actively seeking using private contractors in its lobbying

activities to bring in extra resources for the island.



Hetherington says, ‘In future, I think if anything there will be a

greater amount of money being invested in our PR resources, because

there is a recognition that it is an important way to communicate with

the powers that be.’



Yet the Isle of Wight is as ready as any to use outside companies to

help it in the communications stakes.



‘We have an open mind about privatising any function, because we are

keen to ensure this council gets good value for money,’ he says.



The Isle of Wight has worked with Westminster Strategy for the last two

years, initially enlisting the agency to lobby central governments for

extra funds for the local fire brigade. This was in the wake of animal

rights activists starting four fires in in 1994, and the Island having

to rely on help from fire engines coming byferry from the mainland! Its

lobbying resulted in an pounds 800,000 grant.



The Isle of Wight is not typical of the new unitary authorities because,

according to Hetherington, it was ripe for such a structure. And while

council staffing was reduced by 10 per cent, PR staffing was maintained.



And while he endorses the idea of tendering services to private, outside

consultants, the authority is indecisive about a new consultancy

recommendation, by PA Consulting, suggesting a restructure of senior

management.



He notes that the PR unit is faced with an increased workload. ‘The

demands of running a new style local authority, particularly when we are

the first, are high,’ he adds.



Social studies: Schooled in sensitivity



Sensitive issues are becoming an increasing factor in the working day of

a local authority PR unit, mainly because of the explosion in media

interest and outlets. And this has forced local authority PR units to

get their act together in terms of handling crisis in a professional

manner



Nobody likes to deal with the press when it comes down to giving out

information about a tragedy, and this is not a job for amateurs.



Cleveland Council has had more experience than it would probably like as

a result of the first widely report fatal stabbing of a child in a

primary school and the infamous child abuse cases of the eighties.



And Westminster Council’s press office was faced with the distinctly

nasty task of talking to the media about the recent, horrific killing of

one of its employees, headmaster Philip Lawrence, by a young boy

outside his school earlier this year.



Peter Dodson, County PR Officer for Cleveland County, explained what

it is like to field calls from the media.



‘Cleveland County has had a greater experience than any other local

authority of being in the firing line and talking to the press about

this sort of story,’ he says. ‘In 1987 we had the child abuse

controversy. And two years ago we had the murder of the schoolgirl,

Nikki Conroy, who was stabbed to death in a Middlesborough classroom.’



The experience was the catalyst in leading the then County Council to

mull over disillusionment in the relationship between the local

authority and the media and to deliberately court a high profile, pro-

active approach to media relations.



‘We moved from being defensive to taking a pro-active approach,’ says

Dodson.



Westminster Council had a more recent, harrowing experience when

fielding press enquiries about Lawrence’s murder. ‘I went over to St

George’s School immediately and managed the crisis from there,’ says

Westminster’s head of press and public affairs Andrew Hillier who

previously headed up an information and public affairs team at the

Central Electricity Generating Board prior to and during privatisation.

‘I am on the emergency planning team at Westminster because of my

experience in crisis management’



He was put in charge of all news media releases, liaising with the

Metropolitan Police, City Hall, Social Services and the Department of

Education. He was also requested by the Roman Catholic Diocese to act

for them.



Hillier pays tribute to the set-up at Westminster and the help they gave

him to handle such a difficult job, although he also pointed to the

groundwork already done in establishing the importance of communications

to the Council.



‘The working relationship I have established with Westminster Council

means that if I ask for help or assistance, they understand the

importance of it,’ he says.



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