Elections revealed our shortcomings

Local government elections are always a testing time for council PROs, and this year was no exception. With many councils throughout the land up for grabs, the build-up was frenetic.

Add to this the heady mix of a number of national political problems and it would be fair to describe the pre-election climate as pretty heated. However, despite the intensity of media interest in the elections and the best endeavours of PR professionals, I suspect the reputation of local government was not exactly enhanced. I also doubt whether campaigns helped people make more informed choices.

The temptation for all parties to negatively campaign is, it seems, still irresistible.  And the press are generally happy to go along with it because bad news sells newspapers. No wonder so few people bother to vote.

But is it really the fault of the press – or are council officers themselves in part to blame?

People have a right to factual information about the performance of their council and its chances for further improvement. They need to be able to sort truth from lies, politics from reality: and council officers are there to provide the facts. However, a recent Mori study revealed these civil servants to be rather untrusted by the public (they fared better than journalists, but were deemed less trustworthy than the politicians under who they work).

This is very worrying indeed, and I bet the ranking would be worse still if people were asked whether they trusted council PROs.

Alex Aiken (PRWeek, 5 May) was right when he said that politicians need to be judged by the substance of what they do, rather than the spin people put on it. PROs need to denounce spin and work harder to build relationships with the press and public – relationships that are capable of withstanding unjustified attack (because people know the truth when they hear it).

Council PROs need to ensure they are more honest, open and accountable in all that they do – putting themselves above the political fray to become providers of truth. Those that put style over substance do the rest of us no credit. More worryingly, they endanger the institutions we are trying hard to properly represent.

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