NEWS ANALYSIS: Body backing London’s new head gets in shape - The new Greater London Authority has a PR job ahead of it if it is to emerge from Ken Livingstone’s shadow and communicate its role in the capital

With only the most hazy of constitutional maps to guide them, the PR arms of London’s new political institutions are treading an uncharted path.

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

certain issues.

’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

on it.

’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.

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