Platform: Councils must give PR more local authority - It is time for local authorities to take a fresh look at their communications and give PR greater seniority, says David Walker

With Labour’s fortunes shining brighter than the sun in the Teletubbies’ sky, PR people for organisations that suffered during the Tory years need to beware. New Labour, new complacency.

With Labour’s fortunes shining brighter than the sun in the

Teletubbies’ sky, PR people for organisations that suffered during the

Tory years need to beware. New Labour, new complacency.



’Look, the heat’s off,’ one council PR chief told me: ’our chief

executive is playing golf this weekend with the permanent secretary;

we’ve already been into see the minister four times.’



It won’t do. The honeymoon with ministers can’t last. And what about the

council-tax-paying public: they may have voted a Labour government in on

1 May but where is the evidence that they have suddenly converted to the

worth of town and county hall budgets or the efficiency and

effectiveness of municipal street cleaning, child care or schooling. In

Hackney, or Doncaster, or Westminster ?



The battle to win the hearts and minds of the public to the cause of

local government is far from over. Truth to tell, in many places it has

not yet begun. There remains a mammoth PR task of reaching out to a

local public which - consistent polling evidence shows - holds neither

councillors nor the business of elective local government in high enough

regard. High enough, that is, to ensure its survival in sound financial

health into the 21st century.



Now, while the political climate is (temporarily) favourable, is the

time to make ’public relations’ expansively defined as a central task

for town halls.



In too many cases, still, public relations are fobbed off to an ex-hack,

defined as mere press relations - by councillors blind to the decline in

local media.



In far too few councils, communications management is not yet recognised

as a top table task needing skills that are going to have to be paid for

on the same kind of professional scales that reward education and social

services directors - because without effective communications the very

existence of education and social services as local functions may be in

jeopardy, New Labour and all.



The message about messages needs to be hammered home. All members of an

authority’s staff and all elected councillors send signals all the time

about the nature of the council. Local authorities, like all

organisations, have a subliminal ’body language’ which says something

about their purposes and methods.



’Image’ may be hard to pin down in a multi-functional organisation which

impacts on all the public a little and some of the public a lot, but

chief executives and councillors have to see that the way their

organisation is perceived can augment its effectiveness.



The patience and politeness of the ticket seller at the baths says as

much about leisure services as any overt statement of council

policy.



Such messages are not easy to control; they may be difficult to

manage.



Local authorities none the less have a choice. They can let

communication happen randomly, and run the risk that conflicting,

incoherent or even negative messages are conveyed. Or they can plan,

influence, and monitor the ways they communicate. Which means making PR

a central responsibility of the highest seniority.



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