The difficulty party politicians have with ideological neutrality
can make PR in the charged world of local government a tense balancing
This is all the more pertinent in Tower Hamlets, a borough which
suffered hugely from the demise of the local docks and despite
regeneration around the Isle of Dogs, remains one of London's poorest.
It is also ethnically mixed with more than a third of the inhabitants
coming from non-white households - and has provided a fertile ground for
far right political parties.
As Haringey Council communications head Siobhan Crozier prepares to take
up the same post at Tower Hamlets, she is hoping to bring stability to a
unit subject to almost permanent revolution since 1995.
Both her predecessors have been made redundant, with three restructuring
and rebrandings of the communications structure and functions in that
time. Her appointment brings an end to an 18-month gap in command.
The council maintains that the redundancies were the result of genuine
restructuring of the department, in which case the councillors clearly
developed a taste for dismantling and re-assembling their PR team.
Given the history of the council - eight years of Lib Dem control was
broken by a resurgent Labour in 1994 - it is no surprise that there is
an alternative view.
This holds that the first PR boss to be judged and made redundant, Tony
O'Regan, was ousted by a Labour administration which suspected him of
sympathising with the ancien regime. 1994's bitter elections ended a
turbulent year in the borough, which included the election of a BNP
Local journalists privately back claims from Lib Dem leader Janet Ludlow
that this suspicion of Lib Dem tendencies finally did for O'Regan, even
if he lasted two years after Labour regained control.
Ludlow says: 'After 1994, there was a degree of Labour mistrust toward
communications. That was stupid because O'Regan was good and neutral.
They expected every officer to say the Labour administration was the
best thing since sliced bread. He was badly treated.'
She insists the upheaval since O'Regan's departure in 1996 stems from
what she claims is Labour's inability to see that the unit exists to
communicate on behalf of the council, rather than just its ruling
O'Regan stresses that he worked with Labour for two years with 'no
difficulty at all'. He says the merger of communications with a part of
the finance department left two candidates for one job.
'I was the unsuccessful candidate,' he says. 'It was done properly. I
have no regrets. I took over the top job in 1984. It was always politics
at the sharp end. I kept well out of it.'
O'Regan backs the theory that he, like his successor Peter Davies, was a
victim of the council's desire for change.
A year after O'Regan's move, the then CEO Sylvie Pierce criticised the
press office's 'poor performance', telling a Labour member in a leaked
memo that despite its size - it had 17 staff - it delivered neither a
proper service nor value for money.
This might be slightly unfair given the interregnum, the criticism
coming three months before Davies arrived in March 1998.
Local reporters have sympathy for the press office, and say its
personnel were hampered by the political turmoil within the ruling
Labour group or by officers who were less than enthusiastic about PR and
its local practitioners.
That Labour has been in turmoil is undeniable: it has changed leader
almost every year since 1994, often in coups. Current leader Michael
Keith, refused to contribute to this piece.
But Ludlow says the procrastination since Davies' departure in 1999 is
rooted in this turmoil: 'They are too busy squabbling among themselves
to get the communications unit up and running.'
Veteran local government PRO Lorraine Langham defends the authority's
track record. She has reconfigured the service since arriving as a
consultant in January.
While disagreeing that political difficulties prompted the unit's recent
traumas, Langham says: 'Local government is a tough place and these are
some of the most difficult PR jobs. But it is rare for somebody to be
made redundant as a result of political changes.'
She acknowledges that CEOs and communications bosses are the most likely
targets for a new regime. Indeed, she joins Carl Welham, chair of the
IPR local government group, in pointing to the strict legal framework
requiring neutrality. Welham says barely one per cent of PR
professionals in local government would experience the upheaval which
befell Tower Hamlets.
The pair agree that making the communications head a member of the
management team is crucial. Langham says Tower Hamlets struggled to fill
the top PR job last year because it did not carry this status.
Crozier will have a seat at the top managerial table, one reason why the
incoming boss believes that despite a turbulent recent past, the future
Asked if she is confident of balancing competing demands of strident
politicians, Crozier says: 'Local government is challenging to work in
but the role of head of communications is to promote the policies and
services of the council.'
So can she bring some much-needed stability? 'It seemed clear to me the
structure has been set and the leadership is clear about what it wants,'
The focus now, she says, is on filling seven job vacancies.