'Communications in Local Government', research carried out by MORI on behalf of the Local Government Association (LGA) and published in May 2004, identified a strong link between council comms and overall performance.
Quite simply, those councils graded either 'excellent' or 'good' by the Audit Commission under Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) spent more on comms than those given any of the three less favourable performance designations.
These findings emerged against the backdrop of the LGA's ongoing 'Connecting with Communities' project that has stressed, in words echoed by Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford, that good comms is both a duty and an opportunity for local authorities. The project's aim is that best practice be disseminated to councils across the country, which should also be challenged to raise their communications standard and make it clear to their residents what they stand for.
The majority of councils have made use of the LGA's toolkit modules in some way. More authorities than was the case two or three years ago are increasing comms budgets at above the rate of inflation. Yet, as ever, resource continues to be an issue for many council comms chiefs as money that goes into PR and marketing is often diverted from other key operational areas. 'One has always got to justify what you do against money going into frontline services,' says Leicester City Council head of comms Mark Bentley.
Nevertheless, PRWeek's in-house survey of the PR headcount at council comms departments across London boroughs, metropolitan district councils and English unitary authorities demonstrates that the fact remains that the bigger the population served by the council, the larger the PR headcount (with the notable exception of the sparsely populated City of London).
Indeed, at some authorities, communications budget hikes have enabled them to increase departmental headcount. Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, at number six position of the English Unitary Authorities table, for example, has expanded its comms team by two posts over the past 18 months and these newly created positions have swelled the ranks to seven.
'It's not just about PR any more, although media relations remain important,' says Blackburn acting director of comms Alison Milner. 'Councils have to account for their performance and justify the services they give for council tax. All of the communications work we do is built on citizenship.'
A huge regeneration programme in the borough is explained in a Shaping the Future with You DVD, the final cut of which will include comments from residents. A community cohesion programme, 'Many Lives, Many Faces', makes a point of talking about what people have in common rather than any diversity in an effort to engender a spirit of shared citizenship.
In a higher-risk move, which so far has paid off, the council has allowed itself to be the subject of a docu-soap made by Granada TV and shown in the North-West. Are You Being Serviced? has run for two series and is watched by 400,000.
Meanwhile, eighth-placed in the London Borough table, Camden has reorganised its comms structure so that there is a comms gatekeeper for each council department. 'We have been working on developing an integrated communication strategy that has been based on quite a lot of research among residents and other stakeholders,' says head of comms Emma Marinos.
There has also been alignment of comms vehicles to make sure there is a consistency of branding and appearance. The borough's 105,000 print run Camden Living publication was relaunched in April and its website was revamped. A community safety initiative, 'Think Safe, Be Safe', has been the year's biggest campaign. One of the main challenges, Marinos believes, is in working with partners such as the police, primary care trusts and NGOs, which is happening with growing regularity. 'That's challenging from a communications point of view due to co-ordination, branding issues and accountability. People still need to know who's accountable for something,' she adds.
Number four in the English Unitary Authorities table, Southampton City Council is soon to embark on an image campaign that will talk up the virtues of the city, says head of comms Liz Kite: 'We need to engage our residents before we can go off and tell the rest of the world about our city.'
Southampton carries out satisfaction surveys and evaluates its media coverage using a software package to determine how the image of the city and its council are portrayed. Kite is quick to point out that bigger communications teams do not always equate to better performance. She detects a shift in the demands on the PR function, although unlike some others she does not believe it is moving towards marketing. 'I don't think we do marketing in its purest sense,' says Kite. 'There's more of a shift to looking at communications as a whole and how the various bits fit into that.'
Fifth-placed in the English Unitary Authorities table, Telford and Wrekin Council corporate comms manager Kate Bond does, however, see the emergence of a wider marketing brief. She believes press officers also need to become increasingly creative in order to achieve impact on limited budgets.
CPA and the tables compiled by the Audit Commission are leading ever greater numbers of council executives and leaders to buy into communications as the link between communications and public satisfaction scores becomes ever clearer. 'It puts a lot of pressure on us,' says Bond. 'But the main thing for us is it gives added credibility to what we are doing.'
Understandably, measuring outcomes is a live issue. MORI reports that the proportion of local authorities monitoring and evaluating the impact of their communications has increased significantly since 2001. The majority of this monitoring is undertaken in-house, with only about one in ten councils doing any joint work with external organisations on media impact.
The primary purpose of this monitoring and evaluation is to inform others about the practices of the comms team - with half the work never reaching the management team or council members. But three out of ten local authorities do make a point of providing senior management with this information.
Birmingham City Council, heading up the Metropolitan District Councils table, runs an annual MORI survey, which includes questions on how well it communicates with citizens. Media evaluation is applied to particular projects. 'The council also publishes quarterly monitoring reports on performance indicators, which includes communication,' says head of press office Audrey Geber. 'In addition, we keep a check on hits on the council website.'
Freedom of Information Act
Birmingham council, as a whole, has set up a working group to look at the implications of the Freedom of Information Act, one of the biggest challenges facing local authorities next year, and to train staff in this area. Geber is quick to point out, however, that a great deal of information about the council is already available on its website.
Chelmsford Borough Council head of corporate strategy and comms, and chair of the IPR Local Government Group, Pat Gaudin says the consensus is that CPA and the onus on performance has benefited local authority communications heads. 'There have been examples where councils have been told their internal communications isn't good and shortly afterwards you see an ad in the paper saying they are looking to recruit,' she says.
Going forward, local authorities will be expected to increase the amount of two-way communication they engage in with their citizens. Use of opinion polls to determine how councils and their major campaigns are perceived will grow in frequency.
Media relations work will remain critical but is now only one weapon in the armoury, given that local authority communications has become far more strategic in nature. Areas such as corporate identity, in which staff are seen as ambassadors for the council, have grown in importance and internal comms channels such as intranets are escalating in usage. Staff attitude surveys are also becoming more prevalent, again reflecting the growth of two-way communication. There is, it seems, more work than ever for council comms departments to tackle.
For PR headcounts for all councils surveyed go to WWW.PRWEEK.COM
TOP TEN LONDON BOROUGHS
PR headcount Population Population per
Corporation of London* 18 8,000 444
London Borough of Bromley 14 298,300 21,307
London Borough of Newham 11 253,800 23,073
London Borough of Lewisham 11 248,300 22,573
London Borough of Hackney 8 208,400 26,050
London Borough of Harrow 7.5 210,700 28,093
Westminster City Council 7 222,000 31,714
London Borough of Camden 7 210,700 30,100
London Borough of Merton 7 191,400 27,342
London Borough of Barking 7 165,900 23,700
Ranked by number of staff working in PR/comms teams. Does not include
design, DM or advertising.Where they tie, ranked by ratio between PROs
and population. Population headcounts from government mid-2003
population estimates. All calls made between 30 September-1 October and
7-8 October 2004. *Includes the sparsely populated City of London, which
generates disproportionate media interest.
TOP TEN ENGLISH UNITARY AUTHORITIES
PR headcount Population Population per
Leicester City Council 10 283,900 28,390
Brighton & Hove Council 9 251,500 27,944
Kingston Upon Hull City
Council 8 247,900 30,987
Southampton City Council 7.5 221,100 29,480
Telford & Wrekin Council 7.5 160,300 21,373
Blackburn with Darwen 7 139,800 19,971
Swindon Borough Council 7 181,200 25,886
Stoke on Trent City Council 6.5 238,000 36,615
Stockton on Tees
Borough Council 6.5 186,300 28,662
Nottingham City Council 6 273,900 45,650
Criteria as above
TOP TEN METROPOLITAN DISTRICT COUNCILS
PR headcount Population Population per
Birmingham City Council 15 992,100 66,140
Leeds City Council 14 715,200 51,086
Bradford City Metropolitan 12 477,800 39,817
Liverpool City Council 12 441,800 36,816
Newcastle City Council 11 266,600 24,236
Coventry City Council 10 305,000 30,500
Manchester City Council 9.5 432,500 45,526
Sheffield City Council 9 512,500 56,944
Wakefield Metropolitan 9 318,300 35,366
Gateshead Metropolitan 9 191,000 21,222
Criteria as above
CORPORATION OF LONDON - 18 PROS 1 SERVES 444 PEOPLE
The Corporation of London is unique. As well as providing a diverse range of local authority services for the benefit of City residents and businesses, and all those who visit or work in the Square Mile, it promotes the City of London as a financial centre and is a provider of amenities and services for the whole of London. Although it only has 7,000 residents, 320,000 office workers flow in every weekday.
The quality of London's transport infrastructure is clearly of importance and among the major projects that the Corporation is campaigning to see realised is the long-awaited CrossRail train link.
In its role as champion of the City's status as Europe's leading financial centre, the Corporation established a three-strong office in Brussels this spring to lobby for London's interests in EU financial services matters.
Each year, the Lord Mayor spends between 50 and 80 days on overseas visits promoting the City. The City also provides hospitality to visiting heads of state and other dignitaries at no cost to the taxpayer, which necessitates liaison work with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in areas such as the content of the Lord Mayor's speeches.
The public affairs, media and literature and communications teams also help generate City support for the London 2012 Olympics bid by talking to business leaders and arranging briefing events. There is also a PR job to be done in supporting London's largest grant-making charity, the Bridge House Trust, which uses ancient money for modern purposes. Not to mention issues related to the Corporation's responsibility for the Barbican Arts Centre, Hampstead Heath, the Port of London Health Authority, Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow and five City bridges.
'This is the sort of job where if you get bored with transport policy by 11am you can turn your attention to financial services policy in Brussels before lunch and then spend the afternoon focusing on arts provision, which has a £45m budget,' says director of PR Tony Halmos.
LEICESTER CITY COUNCIL - 10 PROS 1 SERVES 28,390 PEOPLE
'A few years ago, there was more focus on press enquiries and leaflets.
Now we're trying to put what we do in a strategic framework,' says Leicester City Council head of communications Mark Bentley.
Initiatives such as the LGA's 'Connecting with Communities' have helped the evolution towards more strategic comms and have also raised expectations, which can be challenging to meet given the perennial issue of resourcing that local authorities face.
In addition to its monthly 20-page newspaper, Leicester Link, the council has invested in digital channels, launching an email subscription service last year that now has several hundred subscribers. Major recent campaigns include firework safety and public information work relating to the introduction of £50 on-the-spot fines for littering and the debut of litter wardens.
The communications team works closely with Leicestershire Promotions, the not-for-profit body that helps promote the county. A flagship event this year was Leicester Expo, in which the town-hall square was transformed into a giant beach and ethnic food was sold over the course of five days.
Footfall in the town centre increased by 35 to 40 per cent.
The development of performance management frameworks has been a trigger for the team to get better at evaluating what it does, says Bentley, but he concedes that there is still scope for improvement in measuring outcomes.
He also notes a more aggressive stance adopted by local media on council stories. 'I think the media's attitude to local government has changed in recent years,' he says. 'They have become much more challenging and there is a bit more tension in our relationship with them.'
BIRMINGHAM CITY COUNCIL - 15 PROS 1 SERVES 66,140 PEOPLE
The largest unitary authority in the UK has a 34-strong comms division, which covers marketing, sponsorship, city dressing, publications and the web team as well as the PR team of 15. At the time of writing, a successor is yet to be appointed to replace former head of comms Myra Benson, who left after 11 years at the council.
As part of the council's commitment to make neighbourhoods safer, it is pursuing a campaign to combat anti-social behaviour. Birmingham was announced as a government trailblazer last October when the city committed to targeting at least 150 households in the subsequent 18 months. 'Although most cases are resolved without resort to the courts, we will take legal action wherever necessary, and there has been widespread coverage, both locally and nationally, of the action we have taken against offenders,' says head of press office Audrey Geber.
The 'Your City Your Birmingham' programme targets litter, graffiti, fly-tipping and issues of community safety. Launched in October 2003, it involves media relations work supported by banners, posters and safety packs with information and contact numbers - almost 200,000 of which have been distributed across the city.
The end of last month saw the launch of a new campaign to raise awareness of the importance of the Key Stage 3 years for pupils, parents and the community. Youngsters aged 11 to 14 are being targeted with the message that what they learn during the vital KS3 years is likely to affect their success at age 16. Mobile phone text language is used in the campaign strapline: 'Making the grade? gr8 2b ks3!'
NOTTINGHAM CITY COUNCIL - 6 PROS 1 SERVES 45,650 PEOPLE
In spring 2005, Nottingham will be launching a new city brand, which the council, together with public and private sector partners, is playing a key role in developing.
This comes at an important time as Nottingham's image has taken a bit of a battering as the result of the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Danielle Beccan, whose brutal death made headline news.
Recently, the council has had to crisis manage the negative publicity about the city's gun culture and organise events to mark the memory of the murdered schoolgirl. The largest of these, 'Nottingham Stands Together', was a public demonstration of the city's determination to reject gun crime and gun culture, which involved a minute's silence in memory of Danielle on 22 October.
In April, the council launched social responsibility campaign 'Respect for Nottingham' in an effort to reduce anti-social behaviour in areas such as drug-taking, binge- drinking and begging.
'It's really important the city council is seen to be a community leader,' says head of communication and marketing Caroline Shutter. Behind the scenes, there has been public affairs work targeting Whitehall in an effort to persuade Government departments to relocate staff to the city.
Shutter believes the CPA has brought greater clarity to local-government thinking, so that communications resources are properly focused. Email is being used more frequently with important business partners in the city. Boots, Capital One, Experian and the Inland Revenue are among the organisations with a major presence in Nottingham.
SHEFFIELD CITY COUNCIL - 9 PROS 1 SERVES 56,944 PEOPLE
The departure in February of head of marketing and communications Carl Welham to join Buckinghamshire County Council has seen the Sheffield City Council comms function reporting to the head of corporate HR, as restructuring takes place to position marketing communications within the broader scope of organisational development.
'The key communications challenge is to engage with residents rather than just push information out at them. And the best way to do that is through a mixture of communications,' says corporate media manager Simon Hope.
Key campaigns include a drive for a 'cleaner, greener, safer' city that is utilising both advertising and media relations to convey its key messages. Within this, a 'Bin It' initiative spells out that people caught chucking litter in the streets will be handed a £50 fine. A 'Successful Neighbourhoods' initiative, meanwhile, is addressing economic and social regeneration with a view to narrowing the gap between the most and least affluent parts of Sheffield. 'Message in a Bottle', a city-wide emergency information scheme for use by anyone feeling vulnerable in their home, was launched in January.
Public service access, though not directly under the aegis of PR, is considered crucial - so the comms team works closely with those frontline staff with face-to-face exposure to residents to ensure consistency.
'There is a broad approach to communication in this local authority,' says Hope. 'There is marketing activity and there is consultation. The branding is very important.' In the context of pressure to deliver Best Value, Hope says Sheffield 'may be moving towards a client management role rather than a delivery role' in certain areas.
WESTMINSTER CITY COUNCIL - 7 PROS 1 SERVES 31,714 PEOPLE
'Communications is always important to Westminster, but we are moving from pure PR to an approach that integrates media, marketing and internal communications, and measures and evaluates the impact on the business of our activities,' says Westminster head of communications Alex Aiken.
Aiken also doubles as head of communications for the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, where he is based one day a week, as Westminster has the contract to run Richmond's communications until 2006. He sees advantages in such a relationship, allowing each council to learn from the challenges and circumstances faced by the other.
A major programme is Westminster's ongoing 'Civic Renewal' campaign, which focuses on promoting five core brand values: leadership, excellence, partnership, service and innovation. An internal campaign, 'Think Create', generated 250 ideas from staff on how the council could innovate.
An environmental campaign against fly-posting, chewing gum and 'tart cards' has targeted businesses as well as individuals. A website was built to name and shame big music companies that regularly fly-post in Westminster - and to point out to their chief executives that they could be charged with criminal damage if the activity continues.
A lookalike of famous referee Pierluigi Collina, accompanied by an 'Italian football team', was hired to give symbolic red cards to people spitting gum onto Oxford Street's pavements and used to generate media coverage of the initiative.
Westminster also called for Wrigley, which manufactures 90 per cent of Britain's chewing gum, to add a 1p tax to every packet of gum to pay for street-cleaning costs.
'These targeted campaigns that put people on the spot because of their actions are the ones having success,' says Aiken. 'That's interesting for a local authority.'