Counselling councils: Should local authorities look to outside agencies for specialist help, asks Richard Edwards

We may be on the cusp of a new millennium, but local government PR still conjures up the same stereotype it did 20 years ago, of tweed-suited hacks seeing out the last days of their careers banging out press releases, answering the phone after 20 rings and leaving at two minutes to five.

We may be on the cusp of a new millennium, but local government PR

still conjures up the same stereotype it did 20 years ago, of

tweed-suited hacks seeing out the last days of their careers banging out

press releases, answering the phone after 20 rings and leaving at two

minutes to five.

Although local councils have come a long way since 1985, when a meagre

17 per cent of local authorities had a full-time PR function, the image

problem warns of deeper issues in local government communications.

Well-rounded PR is the preserve of only the most modern local councils,

and the legacy of recruiting PROs with a limited budget to ’do the job’

with the local press lives on.

PROs in this sector still have a job to do to convince CEOs they deserve

a place at the heart of local government. According to Hamish Davidson,

a local government recruitment specialist at PricewaterhouseCoopers, it

is a case of shifting ingrained attitudes among council CEOs for whom

old ideas of the role of communications still exist.

Chairman of the Society of Council Press Officers Peter Berry believes

the root of the problem lies in communications being a late addition to

the structure of local government. ’Council communications is seen as a

bolt-on extra, but communications people are not assertive enough in

proving the benefits they provide. Historically they haven’t been at a

senior level and have not been able to convert senior managers to the

power of PR,’ he says.

This is where, agencies argue, the private sector can help, by

emphasising the role of communications and PR as corporate functions,

and bringing them to centre stage. At Chelgate, which works for Lewisham

Borough Council, director of the local government unit Paul Richards

says: ’A good consultant can go into bat against resistance from

executives and really speak for the power of PR. Unlike PROs, you get

access to CEOs and you can act as a bridge between the two.’

Chris Malender, assistant to the CEO at Rotherham Council, is one of a

growing number of local council executives who have brought in outside

consultants and believes without doubt that they can play a powerful

role as catalysts. ’We had been talking about overhauling our

communications for a while. Without outside help, we would still be

talking about it now,’ he says.

Norfolk County Council called in Westminster Citigate for a

communications audit in July, a move which communications and human

resources director Alan Tidmarsh felt put the council on the right track

with its PR strategy.

’We couldn’t meet the demands of modern communications with our current

structure,’ he says. ’We brought in Citigate because we needed to get

the right advice so we could go above the day-to-day and get to grips

with the big issues.’

The council approved all Citigate’s recommendations in August, which

included the recruitment of its first communications director, reporting

to the CEO’s department, and a comprehensive communications


Citigate MD Adrian Roxan believes the council’s commitment to change and

readiness to seek outside help were key to the success of the


In addition, in the past six months, Argyle and Bute Council has called

on PS Communications, and Islington Council has brought in Westminster

Strategy. Both agencies have recommended sweeping changes which have

thrust communications to the heart of corporate decision-making.

Even though Berry is eager to point out that such skills already exist

in many local authorities, the pressures of time, geography and the

magnitude of the job often prevent the sharing of best practice in the


Mark Fletcher, owner of agency Reputation, whose local authority work

includes media training, launches, and strategic advice, believes this

is another area where external consultants can step in and benefit


’Outside help will give you short cuts to goals, access to a different

way of thinking, and the benefit of learning from other people’s

mistakes,’ he says.

Fletcher further believes buying-in of skills and experience should

extend to the full range of tasks faced by local government PR

departments, and not just the one-off overhaul. ’A council PRO is a busy

person who deals with communications needs across the spectrum on a

day-to-day basis. When specialist issues arise, they should call on a PR

specialist,’ he says.

Such specialisms could include events promotion, new service launches,

community surveys, or a periodical MOT to ensure the communications

machine is running effectively.

But while Hackney director of communications Marina Pirotta believes in

embracing outside help where it is necessary, she says the private

sector cannot always come into local government and wave its magic

problem-solving wand - especially when a balance has already been struck

between dealing with day-to-day and strategic issues.

’I get frustrated by the blinkered view that the private sector is

always best. The truth is, it depends on the strength of the in-house

team and the PR company,’ she says. ’I’ve worked with some excellent

agencies, but also some mediocre ones which floundered in a political

environment. There are many local authority teams which can beat the

private sector hands down - you only need to look at how many of them

get shortlisted for industry awards.’

Local government communications is a deeply challenging arena and

sometimes the private sector does struggle to succeed. Westminster City

Council director of planning and communications Graham Ellis outsourced

his entire press office operation to an outside agency in 1998, only for

it to be brought back in-house this year. ’The contractor failed to

deliver the press office function we expected,’ he says. ’It wasn’t a

negative experience having an agency press office, but we didn’t get the

support we needed.’

Ellis adds that ongoing evaluation of what was being achieved and a

flexible approach towards sourcing the function helped Westminster come

to the decision - a philosophy Fletcher believes is the key to the

success of public/private partnerships, in whatever capacity.

’Continual assessment is crucial and measurement of success is the key,

whether it is done internally or externally through a consultant,’ he


Ian Coldwell, director of PS Communications, agrees that measurement,

evaluation and definition of goals are tools which can prove the worth

and determine the success of a partnership between the private and

public sector. These tools can also be used by council PR departments to

benchmark public perception of services and any changes they achieve

through PR - be it through campaigns or consultation.

Partnership and outsourcing in PR is still a new idea in local

government, but the imminent Best Value legislation means all local

authorities have to demonstrate their services offer value for money.

The scope for private involvement will grow at all levels and force

councils to measure themselves against private sector resources.

In-house and external PR executives agree that assistance from the

private sector cannot guarantee effective communications in local


But throwing the town hall doors open could help open the eyes of even

the most stubborn CEO to what can be achieved with a forward-thinking

attitude to PR.

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