Is there a role for outside agencies in the delivery of local
authority communication services?
It seems a little ironic after 15 years of privatisation, outsourcing
and joint ventures in services from street cleaning to swimming pools,
that local government should only now be fully entering the same debate
on the provision of PR.
Over this time, councillors and officers in every corner of council life
have witnessed huge change in the provision and delivery of
Much of this was initially driven by legislation, but there has been an
increasing recognition that public-private partnerships can help improve
service delivery and bring new skills and expertise to a local authority
In this sense PR is no different from leisure services - indeed, there
are numerous examples of in-house teams contracting out PR-related
services such as design and marketing and extensive use of freelance
staff in many local authority press offices. However, it is also clear
that core PR functions have largely remained untouched.
This is not to suggest that in-house provision does not have a crucial
role to play, particularly in handling local media, nor that local
government PR is either weak or wanting.
Local authorities contain many excellent PR practitioners and have been
responsible for some first-class campaigns, both internally and
Nevertheless, just as leisure services, refuse collection and housing
provision have, on the whole, benefited from private sector involvement
so might communications services.
There is no legislation to force this, but a need for additional skills
and expertise, experience of other sectors and new creative impulses
might open up the field to market testing and new partnership
Local authorities have long ceased to be islands of their own
They require inward investment, the successful targeting of national and
specialist media audiences and careful handling of decision-makers in
Whitehall, Westminster and Brussels. All these demands need appropriate
Agency involvement can come in various forms. It includes strategic
advice and support, and the development of a corporate approach to
It can help create and plan proactive PR programmes, support the
positioning of communications within the organisation and provide
training to elected members and officers. Not least it can offer
additional skills and experience gained from working in non-local
Many local authorities are undertaking major changes and need to put
communications at the centre of their agenda. There is an increasing
need to communicate effectively with local, regional and national
audiences and to find new and exciting ways of integrating
communications and marketing across councils.
For too long, senior members and officers have underestimated the
importance of good internal and external communications. It demands the
right skills mix to support the in-house team and deliver real results
with key audiences.
How you draw those skills together and make them effective is key.
External advisers can help chart a path which allows flexibility in
delivery and, crucially, puts communication at the heart of the
organisation. That is the real challenge for local government PR, be it
in-house, via an agency or through a creative mix. The time has come for
the doors of council PR departments to be opened a little wider and for
the chief executive’s office to be more easily accessed.