With only the most hazy of constitutional maps to guide them, the
PR arms of London’s new political institutions are treading an uncharted
The communications function of the newly-created Greater London
Authority - covering the mayor, the assembly and the authority composed
of both - is in a period of speedy transition; from non-existence six
months ago, to becoming a fully-fledged press and PR department by the
start of next month.
Until now, most media attention has focused on the mayor; the dramatic
circumstances of Ken Livingstone’s return to London-wide power, his
popular appeal and the fact he will command a budget in excess of three
billion pounds made sure of that. Livingstone’s image is being handled
by press secretary and former news reporter Emma St Giles, together with
his former parliamentary assistant Simon Fletcher.
The creation of a PR function for the authority has been less clear
The main power the assembly has is the right to reject the mayor’s
spending plans if two-thirds of members can agree. With nine members
each from Labour and the Tories, three Greens and four Liberal
Democrats, shifting alliances are anticipated to constantly change the
way the assembly behaves.
The authority - covering all of London’s 33 boroughs, plus the City -
faces a host of challenges in communicating its role to key
Foremost among these is the need to avoid the tensions likely to arise
between the mayor’s personal image management team and that of the
Jonny Popper, founding director of London Communications Agency, which
specialises in communications advice to London-based firms and
organisations, says while both the mayor and assembly will feel the need
to work for the good of Londoners, their views are bound to differ on
’The possibility for tension between the competing communications
functions has to be avoided,’ Popper says.
The second major challenge is the near-impossibility of meeting public
expectation that the new London authority can deliver positive
Given the constraints placed on the assembly by the Greater London
Authority Act of 1999, actually effecting change worth telling people
about is going to be hard work.
Structures are being put in place to carry out that work and to tell
people about it. Former Cabinet Office communications chief Mike
Ricketts has been seconded to the GLA as interim director of
communications, tasked with establishing a PR function. In the last six
months he has brought in civil servants Christina Stone as head of press
and marketing and Anthony Ferguson as head of internal communications
and public liaison. He also has the support of a group of secondees from
various PR consultancies and government departments.
Ricketts readily admits that the department has not been finished. But
he insists he is putting ’the building blocks in place’. Priorities
being what they are, the team has established a press office to put out
statements and field media enquiries, but has yet to bring in the public
consultation programmes it hopes to create.
Since the assembly was also a new departure for London government, there
was no structure in place to handle that specific brief - indeed, that
was the logic behind forming Ricketts’ team in advance of the election
earlier this month. The interim team - a part of the entire GLA
transition team - will be formally confirmed in their posts when the
authority assumes power early in July.
Patrick Kerr, director of communications at economic development and
inward investment agency London First, says this is more of a problem
than what happens within the mayor’s team. ’Defining the assembly’s
brand and role in the face of a strong and famous mayor is a tough task.
Very few people even know there is an assembly, let alone who sits in
it,’ he says.
The challenge of low public awareness is also being tackled. A proposal
from the nine-strong assembly Labour group looks set to win the support
of the other three parties. It would involve GLA members - 14 elected in
multiple-borough constituencies, the remaining 11 topped up by party
lists - having two and a half staff members each, plus a further three
at the disposal of each party grouping.
The idea is that within each cluster, one would run the office, one
would advise on policy and one would spin. This creates a rival
constituency of PROs, none of which are, of necessity, concerned with
the wider picture - something regretful Labour figures initially in
favour of the new authority are quick to spot. With mayoral teams, the
official GLA team and the party political teams within the assembly, the
system could scarcely be more complex.
Nick Keable, MD of PPS public affairs and head of its London unit, is
reluctant to predict whether the range of challenges faced in PR by the
various parts of the new authority can be adequately met by the
structures currently in place. But he stresses that an awful lot rides
’Spreading this experiment in government to the provinces depends on it
being seen as a success. If the GLA fails to convince key audiences that
it is worthwhile, there won’t be directly-elected mayors in Liverpool,
Bradford, Leeds, Manchester or anywhere else,’ Keable says.