ANALYSIS: Good communication breeds better relations - Changes to race relations laws will have a profound effect on the way councils communicate, Lord Herman Ouseley tells Claire Murphy

An amendment to the 1976 Race Relations Act came into force earlier this month that has wide-reaching implications for local authority PR.

Public bodies are no longer exempt from the Act, meaning their leaders can be held responsible for racist acts by local authorities. But the amendment goes further - these bodies are now expected to push equality of opportunity and good race relations.

The amendment came about following the Macpherson report into alleged police racism that marked the investigation into the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence. It also comes against a fractious backdrop of the treatment of ethnic minorities.

Police have to balance calls for sensitivity to ethnic minorities with demands to combat crime using stop and search; urban authorities are considering how to achieve better integration of communities following last year's riots, and increasing numbers of asylum-seekers are forcing Britons to examine their own prejudices.

The one thing everyone agrees is that better ways must be found to communicate with ethnic minority groups, to help them feel less isolated from the decision-making part of society. With this in mind, PRWeek sought the views of Lord Herman Ouseley, formerly head of the Commission for Racial Equality and now a director of ethnic minority-oriented Focus Consultancy.

Ouseley's experience over three decades in the public sector makes him something of an oracle on this. He believes authorities should see comms as crucial to explaining their policies, in order to encourage understanding between different ethnic groups.

The irony is that in some cases, action to improve the lot of ethnic minorities actually breeds worse race relations.

'This is relevant if you think how neighbourhood renewal money may go to one community,' he says. 'PR is critical to explain to others why that decision was made, and to stop resentment fed by misinformation. Promoting good race relations means helping people understand the process so they are equipped to contribute.'

A classic example of where this can fail happened last month in Eltham, the London suburb where Lawrence lived. Having secured £23m for a regeneration project, the council plans to knock down the Ferrier Estate, 40 per cent of whose inhabitants are Somali, Eritrean and West African. Problems arose when Ferrier residents discovered that 70 per cent of the replacement housing stock would be sold privately, making it out of reach to many.

The Ferrier residents action group launched a major PR push aimed at stopping this plan in its tracks. Chair Azara Issifu told the local and national press: 'I would not mind if the estate was demolished as long as residents could come back and we were involved. They are not listening to us.'

Making people feel listened to is crucial, Ouseley emphasises, and is a principle that applies to every community, whatever their ethnicity.

'It's a question of media. What methods are appropriate to target niche groups?' He points to some schemes as evidence of good practice - careers services, say, that go on outreach drives to nightclubs: 'They think creatively about how to target groups who don't have a history of easily accessing information.'

Tackling the police's often fraught relations with minorities need not be as tough as the media likes to imply, he says: 'Communication works on two levels. There's the mass media with the wave of stories about street crime and their associations with various racial and age groups. But there's also talking that police do in schools and youth groups to build relationships. You're more likely to believe what someone is saying than a story in a newspaper. At ground level, communication is vital.'

In education, where Ouseley says he would like to see even more communication involving parents with teachers and pupils: 'Building links between these groups means clarifying responsibilities and getting parents involved. The best schools work hard at this.'

Indeed, building relationships is a theme Ouseley returns to. The issue is crucial to preventing more riots on the scale of what happened last summer in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. The Cantle report into the riots found communities 'operating on a series of parallel lines - not touching at any point, let alone overlaping and providing any meaningful interchange.'

Cantle recommended finding ways of reducing comunity segregation - something Ouseley backs (especially as he had come to similar conclusions in his own report on Bradford before the riots). And this is why, he says, it is so important the Act's amendment is taken up by public communicators: 'There must be an element of using PR to encourage social interaction.'

There is no denying public sector PROs face a struggle to reverse institutional racism and to actively embrace promoting good relations between the myriad of races in the UK.

Even the parliamentary system has failed so far to reflect ethnic diversity.

There are only 12 MPs from ethnic minorities - there should be at least 60 to represent the ten per cent of the British population that is not white. If the Government wants the message understood that it and all its public bodies are listening to ethnic minorities, this would be a good place to start.

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