Fergus Emleton-Black has no formal PR training. As senior
communications and committee services officer at Berwick-Upon-Tweed
district council, he is the authority's only PRO - and then for only a
few hours a week.
He has no budget and, for the four years he has been in the job, he has
had to improvise. This month, he has struck a deal with local radio
broadcasters to offer free media training to councillors.
The worry for local government is that Emleton-Black is not alone.
According to figures from the Local Government Association (LGA)
(PRWeek, 10 August), a third of all councils have no full-time
designated PRO. Dozens more cope with just one PRO to implement the
Government's agenda of local government modernisation.
Council PROs are being forced to upgrade their online communications as
part of the 'e-government' agenda. By 2005, all residents should be able
to carry out electronic business with councils, such as paying council
On top of this, the Local Government Act requires PROs to implement a
full communications and consultation project for referendums on directly
Given the usual workload of profile-raising, press release writing and
crisis management, this is hardly a persuasive advert for working in
local government PR.
But hope is on the horizon. A range of measures is to come into force
over the next year to help council PROs deal with change.
Still in its embryonic stage is an initiative by the Department of
Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), which is responsible
for the modernisation agenda. A working group, overseen by local
government minister Nick Raynesford, has been set up linking DTLR
officials, the LGA, council watchdog the Improvement Development Agency
(IDeA) and a host of council PROs.
The minutes of this group's 23 July meeting, leaked exclusively to
PRWeek, reveal that a full study by Mori and academics from Cardiff and
Birmingham universities, is on the verge of being commissioned. This
will, for the first time, present lists of the best and worst-performing
councils in terms of communications. Help will be given to bad
performers and they will be reviewed to ensure improvements have
The group is also about to recruit two public sector specialist PR
agencies: Marina Pirotta Communications and Grant Riches Communications
They will help produce a best practice toolkit for PROs, the main
beneficiaries of which is expected to be councils with little or no
This toolkit could be launched at the LGA conference next July.
Society of County and Unitary Public Relations Officers (Scupro) chair
Julie Hollings is upbeat. She says: 'This is very exciting and will
provide a timely aid for council PROs.'
Nor is it just the DTLR that is acting. The IPR local government group
has teamed up with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives
(Solace) for two further aids.
First, a crisis network will be launched at the IPR Local Government
conference in September. This will enable PROs with experience in crisis
management to be seconded to other authorities that are dealing with
Second, and also at the conference, a mentoring scheme will be
IPR group vice-chair James Flynn says: 'There are PROs, particularly in
smaller councils, who are carrying out media relations, campaigns and
marketing, and are probably handling the mayor's diary as well. This is
a bizarre situation. Help is needed and we want to get involved.'
The LGA has now completed its first full survey of council PR
According to the survey, there is a widespread breakdown in
communications between PROs and senior managers.
More than half of council PR teams do not show councillors and
management their monitoring and evaluation reports on media
Just one per cent of councils have met the IDeA's top communications
standard. Councils must meet strict criteria on strategy, training and
consultation to achieve this.
But although the present looks grim for many councils, a climate of
change is edging its way across the sector. The survey shows that 80 per
cent of councils will either increase or maintain their communications
budget next year.
And three-quarters of councils said communications was a priority. The
number of councils without a single designated PRO has fallen from 210
to 132 in the past four years.
LGA chief executive Brian Briscoe says it is vital that councils
continue to embrace PR: 'It is clear there are real opportunities for
the communications function to play an increasingly influential role
within local authorities and I am pleased most authorities have agreed
communications is a priority.
'The objective is to ensure it is seen as a core competency and not just
a soft option.'
The LGA, the IPR and the DTLR appear optimistic that PROs will be able
to meet the challenge. Emleton-Black appreciates the effort they are
making. 'It's difficult to maintain the council's profile without
resources,' he says. 'I welcome any help with open arms.'
It is to be hoped that part-time and one-man band PROs are equally