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