Local Government: Local government finds a place for external PR help - Islington Council has seized the communications initiative by hiring a PR agency to improve its image, but not everyone is sure outside help is essential

Islington Council needs something akin to divine intervention to turn around its tarnished reputation on education. Britain’s most influential citizen, the Prime Minister, refused to send his children to its schools.

Islington Council needs something akin to divine intervention to

turn around its tarnished reputation on education. Britain’s most

influential citizen, the Prime Minister, refused to send his children to

its schools.



And last month saw the publication of a report by education watchdog

Ofsted which said the council’s Local Education Authority (LEA) had lost

the confidence of the people it serves.



The council’s report card makes grim reading. The number of Islington

16-year-olds acquiring five or more GCSEs graded A-C is half the

national average, and the cost of certain education services to the

people of Islington are in some cases double the national average.



Education is now a battleground between central and local government,

and the consequences for councils which lose that battle are dire.



Hackney was heavily criticised for its record on education in September

1997 and the ensuing year-and-a-half drama, which saw Hackney privatise

part of its LEA under duress, resulted in the departure of chief

executive Tony Elliston earlier this year.



In a similar case, the Government forced Calderdale Metropolitan Borough

Council to appoint a new headmaster to the infamous Ridings School after

the school was shut down and Ofsted carried out an emergency report in

1996.



Secretary of State for Education and Employment David Blunkett has

pledged his department will carry out inspections of all education

authorities by 2001. But Islington’s response to the Ofsted report is

worth examining because it seems to be working.



The strategy has been to eat humble pie and accept the need for partial

privatisation of the LEA, and the council has seized the communications

initiative. Rather than merely responding to media enquiries, it has

hired lobbying and media relations agency Westminster Strategy to sell

its message.



WS was called in ten days before the report was published last month,

initially to limit the damage caused by negative media coverage. The job

has now become strategic, particularly as council PR chief Jennifer

Powell is leaving to join management consultancy Towers Perrin.



WS has effectively taken over Islington’s communications function on a

temporary, two-month basis. This is the first time, at least in recent

years, that an external consultancy has been given such a wide-ranging

brief in a local council large enough to employ its own staff. The

agency has also been asked to review the structure and responsibilities

of the communication department.



Two WS staffers work part time in the department, supplementing the six

members of Islington’s communication unit. Unlike Powell, who reports to

Islington’s director of information Valerie Vaughan-Dick, WS deputy

managing director Mike Lee, who is leading the account, has insisted on

working directly with chief executive Leisha Fullick.



Islington chose to pre-empt any demands for privatisation by the

Government and has drawn up plans to effectively put its LEA out of a

job by having a joint venture company run education services. But

despite appointing PriceWaterhouse Coopers to draw up the plans to

contract out key services, it still faces the tricky task of convincing

the Government and media that things have changed. It is this task which

will ultimately prove WS’s worth to the LEA.



’Islington’s education service is the most visible aspect of its image

problem, but it goes much deeper,’ comments one local government

insider.



’The borough’s poor services across the board means it needs Westminster

Strategy to improve the council’s general standing.’



Lee doesn’t deny that Islington council’s bad image goes beyond

education, but insists it can be rectified.



’The borough suffers from a perception gap. Some of the services need

improving and that is what will count with residents. But the situation

is not as bad as its image suggests.’



Lee firmly believes the trend for councils to improve management of

services by contracting them out should be extended to the

communications function.



But not all boroughs feel their PR function needs bolstering. Carol

White, director of education at Calderdale, is bracing herself for a

third Ofsted report, scheduled to be published in July. When White took

up her role in February, Calderdale had already been the subject of two

negative reports due to Ridings School.



’It is hard to turn around perceptions of the Ridings,’ she admits. ’We

had an instance recently with a personnel issue at the school which hit

the headlines purely because it was the Ridings.’



But she believes she and her colleagues can handle any media attention

the report will bring without outside help. ’We are confident it will be

a good story this time, but we’ve all had extra media training anyway,’

she says.



Others are dubious of the help local councils can find in external

communications experts. Neil Fletcher, education, leisure and tourism

head at the Local Government Association, which advised Hackney and

Calderdale, says: ’Many councils are investing in their own

communications people, principally to make local residents more aware of

services.’



’Bringing in outside consultancies to help spin a detrimental story into

a good one is another matter. Like central government, local councils

should be transparent in all their dealings. PR shouldn’t come between

the council and voters.’



But if Islington is to restore confidence in its schools, it will

undoubtedly need both educational reforms and PR skills.



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