PUBLIC AFFAIRS: On the local level

A year ago, an LGA survey showed many council comms functions suffered from a lack of resources. New DTLR research to tackle the problem has been revealed to PRWeek. Joe Lepper examines what support council PR teams will be offered.

A Local Government Association survey on council communications functions last year proved sombre reading for the PR community. The report illustrated the sometimes dire lack of communications resources available to some councils - a third of all councils have no full-time designated PRO, dozens more have just one.

Also, just one per cent of councils had met the Improvement Development Agency's top communications standard and more than half of council PR teams did not show senior managers and councillors their monitoring and evaluation research.

Although poor communications, management ignorance of the role of PR, and funding shortages are rife, it would be an exaggeration to say all council PR teams have suffered.

The reality is that some are good at it, some are bad. Some are innovative and creative, despite small budgets. Some only send out the occasional press release and far too many times are ridiculed in their local press with only a 'no comment' being offered.

Last year, PRWeek reported that the Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions (DTLR), declared enough was enough and for the first time committed funding to a project to help council PROs (PRWeek, 17 August 2001). PRWeek now takes an exclusive look at the project's research so far and asks what exactly will PROs be offered?

Project-managed by MORI, the aim is to reduce the divide between good and bad PR efforts. This is being done with assistance from survey specialists MVA, researchers at Birmingham's Institute of Local Government (INLOGOV) and Cardiff Business School.

Local government specialist PR consultants Carol Grant and Marina Pirotta are also involved and heavyweight players in the sector, the Local Government Association, Improvement Development Agency (IDeA) and Audit Commission, are keeping a close eye on progress.

Practical support comes in the shape of a toolkit, available online on the IDeA website, www.idea.gov.uk. This will include advice on best practice in comms. And importantly, say council PROs, it will give examples of both good and bad practice, something they have been crying out for.

At last year's Institute of Public Relations local government group's conference, the most popular items, with an 87 per cent approval rating, were the '15 minutes of fame' sessions, where councils shared examples of good practice.

Speaking at this month's IPR local government group AGM, Brighton-based local government consultant Liza Greaves reiterated the importance of sharing: 'It's important for us to share ideas. Pinching ideas is a good thing. We need to learn from others - it's vital.'

Production of a business case document designed for council leaders and CEOs is also underway. This aims to argue the case for PR using examples of its effectiveness.

The bulk of the information has been gleaned from research from 14 authorities, eight selected for their good practice and six because of recent poor practice.

The eight that have performed well are Birmingham City Council, Broxbourne Borough Council, Buckinghamshire County Council, the London Borough of Camden, Colchester Borough Council, Poole Borough Council, Stockton-on Tees Borough Council and the London Borough of Sutton.

Those with a poor track record are Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, the London Borough of Enfield, Herefordshire Council, Lancaster City Council, Nottinghamshire County Council and Rother District Council.

Those involved in the project are quick to point out that this is not a list of the eight best performers and six worst performers.

All have been selected to create a broad church of examples by size, type, geographical spread and political control. IDeA and Audit Commission performance is also taken into account.

One council that has benefitted from reforms is the London Borough of Enfield, whose PR effort has a troubled past.

Back in 1999 the communications team was nominated for a PRWeek award for a project in its Edmonton area, press releases were sent out and The Enfield News residents paper was in circulation. All seemed well - that was until two years ago when a wake-up call came from the IDeA.

Its report concluded the council's PR was poor across the board - press releases, an award nomination and a newspaper were not enough.

Internal communications was practically non-existent, relying on ad hoc e-mails and letters and then only from some managers. And media relations was condemned with the report highlighting a high number of 'no comment' incidents and concluding that, 'the council's wariness of the local press has made it reluctant to engage positively with editors and journalists.'

Last June there was a further setback for the council when communications and marketing director Ashley Gibbins left in mysterious circumstances.

Gibbins now runs his own consultancy and the councilremains tightlipped as to the reason for his departure.

Since the IDeA report and Gibbins' departure much has changed. Human resources director Angela O'Connor now heads communications on a temporary basis. An internal communications system is in place with a staff magazine called Watch this Space. Also, council leader Doug Taylor now holds regular media briefings.

The press office function, without a manager since the departure of Tino Hernandez to a government post last year, was finally bolstered two months ago by two freelance consultants. Since then pro-active press release output has doubled.

But more needs to be done and when MORI and its partners were on the look out for councils, which needed to improve, Enfield leapt at the chance.

O'Connor says: 'What we are being offered is free consultancy advice that ordinarily would be way out of our budget. There's nothing wrong with recognising the need to improve.'

The council is now awaiting the results of a resident and stakeholder survey by MORI, to see how and where further improvements are needed.

And by the end of the year, following free consultancy advice, a permanent communications structure and strategy will be in place.

Above all, the DTLR project appears to have reinvigorated creativity.

The council even feels bold enough to launch a community involvement campaign this year, called 'take pride' - an emotion in short supply in recent times.

Marina Pirotta, involved in consultation work with the poor performers, is vehement in the need to label those councils with a poor track record as 'improving'.

She says: 'The phrase we use is "improving councils". They have been selected because they volunteered to take part, have shown signs of improvement and have a commitment to improve further. They are already on the right track. We are helping them.'

And it would appear that far from an admission of failure, the six 'improving' councils will ultimately be winners due to the special attention being paid to them.

MVA has just completed a survey of 500 residents in each of the six areas.

Residents have been asked a detailed set of questions on their general perception of the council, how they are communicated with, how they rate the council and how they would like to be communicated with.

Academics at INLOGOV and Cardiff Business School have carried out detailed surveys of stakeholders and council workers, including senior managers.

The councils, with DTLR-financed consultancy from Pirotta and Grant, will then act on the research findings and create their own tailor-made communications strategy and management structure.

Next year, residents will be questioned again to see how - or if - the council's PR efforts have improved. If there is no improvement, further consultancy work will take place.

Lancaster is typical of the six. An IDeA report two years ago condemned its communication and consultation efforts. This is not surprising since it had no full-time press officer and little internal communication.

An action plan was put in place following the report. This included the appointment of its first full-time PRO, former NFU spokeswoman Gill Hague. Richard Tulej head of policy and performance says: 'We were then approached by the DTLR and decided to take part in the project to look at how we can improve further. 'We feel we are lucky, we are being offered a lot of advice and research material and will be able to put in place a good structure soon. As a small council we have limited options. This is a great help.'

He adds that the aim is to expand the team further: 'Gill's work has been largely media-focused. We want to expand her role and create a team.'

The MORI project management team is now accumulating the results of the first resident and stakeholder surveys.

A number of themes have emerged that are expected to be included in the toolkit.

MORI associate director Ben Marshall says the headline result of the residents' survey is that people do not want to be bombarded with performance figures and audit commission reports.

'They can't relate to them. They want to know how council decisions affect them. They want to know the reasons for policy. They want information on a street level,' he says.

Poole's PR efforts show how information can be better presented to residents and why it is in a list of good performers.

Last year, like many councils, it launched a consultation exercise on plans for local government modernisation.

The choices of elected mayor, committee or cabinet structures are hardly inspiring. So the Poole team created a campaign called, Who is Jules Jolliffe?

This asked residents who Jules Jolliffe was, alongside information about the modernisation.

Jolliffe, a typical family name in Poole, did not exist but it got people talking and created intrigue. The result of a 27 per cent response rate in the consultation speaks for itself.

Also, to explain the council's budget and council tax rate council workers staged a display where they used Lego bricks to show how and where council tax was being spent.

PR manager Michelle Holland says: 'Communications is about explaining issues in a way people can understand. It's obvious, really.'

Poole has an eight-strong PR team, led by head of marketing Graham Shaw, who reports directly to the senior management team.

Further themes have emerged, according to Pirotta and Grant.

Pirotta says the communications toolkit will show that the most successful council PR teams have a strong commitment to PR from the leadership: 'It must be led from the top. Otherwise it can never work.'

One of the reasons for the London Borough of Camden's inclusion is this commitment. Camden senior PRO Deirdre Colledge sits at the top table with the title assistant CEO (communications).

Grant says research so far shows that PR is a low priority among senior managers showing a very real justification for the project: 'Communications staff have a relatively low status. It's not seen in the same way as other professions. There is support for PR in principle but they need proof of its success before they sign anything.'

The toolkit aims to show the importance of corporate branding. Councils that have a strong idea of their audience and how best to communicate with them do well.

Sheffield and Liverpool city councils are good examples, according to Pirotta. Although not on the main list of 14, their cases are set to receive a mention in the toolkit. Sheffield's giant 76-strong communications team also includes front-line customer services staff, as well as media relations, design and internal communications.

The council is seen as a brand, with all departments operating under one message. An example is where internally a cascade system, starting from a core senior management briefing, is transported down through the levels so all staff have regular, face-to-face and tailor-made briefings all under the same corporate message.

Another method that has impressed MORI and its partners is at Buckinghamshire.

Its ethos is not to further empower the comms team. It is to use that team to empower the rest of the council's 14,000 workers. In real terms a group of children in care recently used the communications team's help to produce a CD-Rom offering advice to children who are about to come into care.

Bucks communications manager Mike McCabe says: 'Here, all 14,000 workers are communicators, the communications professionals are here to help them.'

For smaller councils one way to improve the way they communicate on small budgets is to team up with partners on projects.

Broxbourne is currently involved in a partnership project with Hertfordshire County Council and the county's ten other district and borough councils to promote the waste strategy consultation process.

It's worth noting that Broxbourne is the only council in Britain to have a Chartermark (a government quality standard) for it communications function, another reason for its inclusion in the project.

Undoubtedly this project is seen as a move in the right direction for local government. Roger Sykes, head of research at the Local Government Association - which is to showcase the toolkit at its July conference - calls it 'good value for money'.

It does seem to offer genuine help to councils in dealing with the Local Government Act (2000), which requires PROs to improve their communications and consultation.

However, there is little help for communications teams struggling to meet Government e-communications directives. These state that all councils should be able to conduct electronic business with residents by 2005.

This is something that the toolkit will 'touch on, but not go into great detail', according to Grant. 'It's important but is such a big area it needs to be covered separately as it involves other staff, such as those in IT, not just those in communications. However, we hope that may follow at a later date.'

Despite this positive move, it is widely believed in the sector that the performance of communications is immaterial if council service is poor. No amount of spin can change that.

Residents are canny enough to know if their bins are not being emptied, their education authority has been taken over by a trust or their school playing fields are being sold.

MORI social research institute director Ben Page says: 'To put it bluntly, you can only polish something so far.'

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