PLATFORM: Time to open up the provision of local council PR - Local authorities stand to reap great benefit from outside involvement in their communications function, says Mike Lee

Is there a role for outside agencies in the delivery of local authority communication services?

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

government sectors.

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.

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