The Beeb and C4 offer public sector comms renewed impetus to think regionally

Major news organisations in the UK are showing determined commitment to regions outside London, aiming to better represent the UK in the media, and more reporting about local government and public sector institutions.

The new regional structures at the BBC and C4 offer an opportunity for those working in public sector comms
The new regional structures at the BBC and C4 offer an opportunity for those working in public sector comms

This is an opportunity for media relations and communications professionals, especially those in the public sector.

BBC and Channel 4 local focus

In early March, Channel 4 announced plans for a new national HQ outside London, greater financial and personnel investment in regional content, plus the creation of regional creative and news hubs.

They’re playing catch-up with the BBC, which, with the News Media Association, announced plans in 2016 to bolster local news reporting by creating a shared data unit, investing £8m to fund 150 Local Democracy Reporters (LDRs), and a shared news hub, giving around 50 news agencies (about 600 regional print, online, and broadcast titles) shared access to news and data from across the UK.

The Channel 4 announcement comes as the latest batch of BBC LDRs file stories with regional titles across England, Scotland, and Wales – a pilot of the scheme for Belfast is set to launch in April.

The LDRs focus on every aspect of local authorities, as well as hospitals and emergency services.

It means public sector services are held to greater account, and their initiatives and communications for the public are reported more widely. It also means a new set of reporters for public sector communications teams to build relationships with.

STPs deserve a close look by comms teams

Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STP) bring together local NHS trusts and councils, as well as local charities and community groups, to develop focused, joined-up ways of providing quality health and social care to local populations.

In February 2017, David Holdstock, director of communications at the Local Government Association, penned an article in PRWeek about STPs, which very much chimes in with the vision of this article.

He rightly asked: "What about communications?" It might seem like a given; those working comms will obviously be part of that, somehow.

Public sector communications has a key role to play in helping public institutions arrive at the joined-up goal of STPs, not just reporting after the fact, with press offices in different buildings negotiating who gets quoted first in a press release, or goodwill retweets of respective online campaigns.

What about joined-up approaches to local media relations, and joined-up communications around employment, housing, and education?

Ambitious, yes, but it’s showing leadership, and STPs offer a good starting point.

We can think of examples of public sector communicators 'pulling together' to host large sporting events, or community responses to major terrorist attacks, or natural disasters, so it’s about harnessing that in a more strategic way.

Greater capacity for the regional to become national

With a national sharing of news, data, and best practice, regional stories will have a greater capacity to be discovered by other regional media across the UK, as well as those working on national news desks, and vice versa.

For example, in January this year The Sun ran a piece stating that spend on communications among 250 police services, NHS trusts, and local councils had risen from £88.1m to £98.5m between 2011-12 and 2016-17.

All the while funding to frontline public sector services is being cut, they said.

The article drew the ire of the CIPR, which defended public sector communications and criticised the article for promoting an antiquated interpretation of public relations, and misrepresenting FOIs.

The debacle highlighted the fact that the regional can have national interest. We can expect that to continue and increase.

A shift away from being London-centric

As a major European city and home to Parliament, ministerial departments, and the HQs of many employers across sectors, it’s little wonder that media relations has been rather London-centric.

The focus on regional isn’t to downgrade London news networks, but to raise the regional.

It means public sector comms teams have a renewed impetus to develop their strategies for regional media and communications, regional news-gathering, regional spokespeople, engagement with local people, and people within your HQ who have specialist regional knowledge.

Have you got a Local Democracy Reporter in your area? Find out, and drop him or her a line.

Daniel Blackman is a communications and media officer for the University of East London

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