OPINION: News Analysis - PR takes on challenge of council rebranding - With greater emphasis on quality and value for money, councils are seeking to create a consistent brand by integrating PR and customer relations

The idea that local authorities would treat the residents they serve as ’consumers’ might have appeared laughable a decade or so ago. But in an age where even train companies call passengers ’customers’, quality and relevance are the new watchwords.

The idea that local authorities would treat the residents they

serve as ’consumers’ might have appeared laughable a decade or so ago.

But in an age where even train companies call passengers ’customers’,

quality and relevance are the new watchwords.



Last week’s reorganisation of both Liverpool and Birmingham City

Councils’ PR functions to make them part of customer relations

operations is an attempt to create a consistent brand for the

public.



However, these authorities, and a few others, are cast in the role of

pioneers. As Liverpool Council found, departments were duplicating work,

having evolved their own marketing and publications functions. On the

basis that mixed messages from different parts of the same organisation

are virtually guaranteed to annoy the ’man in the street’, new CEO David

Henshaw saw the need for a fresh approach.



Lewisham Council’s experience was similar. Its communications audit

uncovered ’terrible waste’, according to consultant head of

communications Paul Richards: ’There were mini-press offices all over

the place, with no co-ordination of message or resources.’ Streamlining,

which will double the authority’s ten-strong central communications

department, is under way.



But deciding what you want is one thing; putting it into practice is

quite another. Myra Benson, head of communications and customer

relations at Birmingham City Council, says any corporate move still has

to rely on individuals to carry it out. ’You can set standards and

monitor them. What you can’t do corporately is implementation,’ she

says.



But Mark Fletcher, partner at communications consultancy Reputation,

which has worked for councils including Birmingham and Glasgow, believes

that the approach needs to be more consensual in the first place. ’The

problem with the corporate culture mentality is that people resent it,’

he says. Instead, he says, council workers have to understand and

contribute to the end result.



Lambeth Council is undergoing a brand change in the spring, but director

of communications Robert Blower is concerned that in any reorganisation,

customer relations must become a measurable communications

objective.



That may be complicated where the authority has contracted out services,

he says.



It is not the only problem. Historically, departments within local

councils have seemed more like unrelated tribes rather than a coherent

whole. Adrian Roxan, managing director of Citigate Westminster, thinks

councils which are aiming at a unified brand approach now are ahead of

the game. ’Many councils are quite feudal in nature. They are complex

organisations where the leadership issue is absolutely crucial,’ he

says.



From April, the Government’s Best Value initiative replaces the

compulsory competitive tendering process, which means authorities must

prove they have held meaningful public consultations over services and

who provides them. PR will be a vital part of this process. Roxan thinks

that to the four ’Cs in the programme - challenge, compare, consult,

compete - should be added a fifth - ’communicate’. ’There is no doubt

that customer relations is going to be absolutely essential,’ he says.

’Councils are recognising they have to provide the public with a service

akin to the private sector.’ At Norfolk County Council he recommended a

central communications department comprising press and media relations

along with marketing and customer relations.



’It is an excellent idea and the way local authorities certainly should

go,’ agrees Rich-ards. He admits there is still not enough integration

between the PR and customer relations functions at Lewisham, but insists

that will change.



’A lot of corporate communications is far, far too complicated,’ says

Fletcher. ’The reality is that people experience local government as a

one-to-one experience.’



Put another way, people have a problem with a council’s housing

department rather than with the council as a whole. Creating a

consistent brand should not mitigate against this, although Roxan warns

that not everything can be absorbed totally into a one-brand approach.

Departments such as planning and highways often have their own statutory

requirements which have to operate within a broader brand structure.



’PR needs to be seen as more than press releases,’ Fletcher says. ’The

role of the communications professional is contributing to corporate

strategy.’ If PROs are to become corporate advisers, he adds, the big

challenge is in internal communications and getting people to sign up to

changes.



’You cannot break departmental freedoms, because they allow the means

for career development,’ he says. ’Essentially people’s power base is in

the department and you are not going to change that.’ But he believes

that councils can create values to which each department signs up.



But for all these moves towards a single brand experience, the

isolationist mentality will persist in some areas and individual

councillors will continue to want their own - unsanctioned - publicity

from time to time. And local authority PR chiefs should not bet on the

days of finding out about departmental initiatives via the local paper

being behind them just yet.



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