Alex Aiken: Some old lessons for new councillors

In a CIPR newsletter last month, Buckinghamshire Council’s head of comms Carl Welham wrote that ‘we ditch spin as a tool of our trade at our peril’.

Following the local government elections, I find this assertion worrying. Why? Because spin-addicted political leaders seeking a quick fix to their reputational woes will soon be found out by an increasingly media-savvy public.

Recently, such high-profile commentators as Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and ex-England cricket captain Mike Atherton have held forth on the perception gap between actual events and their presentation to the media.

It has long been observed that the cult of the spin doctor is undermining public information –  to quote Williams, 'anything that looks like the official version is automatically suspect' – but as the Government lurches from crisis to crisis, comms teams more than ever need to act to avoid meltdown in their dealings with the public.

So, if government PR is to regain credibility, it must first regain trust. But being convincing does not necessarily mean being dull. Just look at some of the best media campaigns in local government – from Blackburn's 'Thrash the Trash', to Greenwich's oft-celebrated school meals link-up with Jamie Oliver. They have one thing in common – substance.

Creating a compelling narrative, based on substantial issues, allows government to report its achievements – with inclusion of any problems encountered.  Conversely, spin is essentially a reaction to events and an absence of substance. A coherent story becomes impossible to tell if the response to every event is to deny any error and blame someone else. The debate lies between those who view PR as 'promotion', and those who believe communicators have a wider role as the 'conscience' of organisations, able to advise against bad courses of action for the long-term benefit of organisation and public.

As councillors take office around the country, their heads of communications would do well to advise them that policy delivery will be a long march, with successes and failures, and that public trust has to be earned on the basis of honest public relations, not quick reputational wins or spin-doctor rhetoric.

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