Councils suffer in world of headlines

Sometimes the public sector gets a raw deal. For example, last week was the annual round of the ‘is it true you’ve banned Christmas?’ phone calls to local council press offices. Lambeth says it absolutely has not – but don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good council-bashing.

Despite stating that it was, in fact, looking forward to Christmas, Lambeth was rounded on by the press for political correctness. One small district council got caught in the 'banning Santa' crossfire for considering private funding towards its Christmas lights.

More seriously, in a report a fortnight ago, Tower Hamlets Council was exonerated of all accusations of electoral malpractice. An independent review found 'not a shred of evidence' to back up the claims. But that didn't stop those claims being broadcast on election night and repeated in national papers. The council was branded a 'banana republic'. The report in which it was cleared got just a few paragraphs.

The stakes in the public sector are rising. The Government's new regime for rating the performance of public bodies will put greater weight on public perception and local views. If such perceptions are fed unchallenged by a hostile media, where will that leave the public sector?

Organisations that communicate effectively with their stakeholders will outperform those that do not. Those that use their staff as ambassadors will get their messages across. Those prepared to fight back when unjustly attacked will make the press think twice next time.

But the really smart operators are those that recognise that beyond communications, broader, sustained PR activity will hold them in good stead to weather the occasional storm. Ultimately, unreliable journalism only serves to undermine the messenger. Newspaper readership will fall as people seek other methods of getting to the truth.

Public bodies that invest in managing their reputations will increasingly attract and retain the best talent, win partners, freedoms and funding. The virtuous circle begins and ends with effective, honest PR.

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