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.