News Analysis: 'Between a rock and a hard place'

Liverpool City Council's ex-comms head, who quit earlier this month while on suspension, argues local government PR teams face intensifying pressure.

Matt Finnegan resigned from his role as assistant executive director (media) for Liverpool City Council earlier this month (PRWeek, 8 September). His resignation came 18 months after he was suspended over alleged ‘procurement irregularities' relating to an incident four years previously.

He says he was at the centre of a row over pensions between the former leader of the council and its CEO. Finnegan is writing a book on his experience and plans to return to the industry shortly, but here gives his views of the growing pressures on local government comms professionals.

Imagine this: you are the comms chief of a big city authority that is enjoying an unprecedented resurgence.

Years have been spent fine-tuning and promoting positive messages about your council, your city, its elected leader and high-profile chief executive - winning plaudits and ­international recognition.

You are at the centre of things, consulted and involved in important decision-making every step of the way. Then one day it all goes pear-shaped.  Your council's two powerful figureheads suddenly fall out spectacularly and very publicly. Off the record is off limits. You are caught between a rock and a hard place.

No-win situation
This is a dilemma that increasingly faces communications heads in the public sector as they try to juggle the interests of two bosses - one the most senior politician, the other the most senior public ­servant - while managing their public profile and the council's reputation.

Big-city chief executives are no longer the obscure, ever-so-humble town clerks of yore. They are public ­figures in their own right, often collecting colossal salaries for trying to drive through change, regeneration and the government's rightful insistence on top-quality public services.

They control billion-pound budgets and wield enormous power and influence in a highly concentrated sphere of activity.

Meanwhile, the moves towards directly elected mayors and the spread of Cabinet-style government has given local politicians much more unchallenged authority. These politicians can make up policy on the spot (and often do), then stand back and watch in apparent surprise as the ­council machine creaks into action and press officers are left scratching their heads about what to say to local government correspondents and other reporters.

For local authority communications chiefs, who are now increasingly appointed by all-party panels of senior councillors, having two masters occupying the same public arena is fraught with ­difficulty.

You have to keep on board the political world with all its inconsistencies, ­rivalries, human failings and short-­termism. And you have to keep happy the council bureaucracy with all its slowness, institutional insecurities and sometimes total inability to respond to the constant demands of a 24/7 media. (To say nothing of trying to take a proactive approach.)

So when the two worlds collide and their respective leaders suddenly start to slug it out, I suspect even the most seasoned council PROs would dive for cover and keep their heads down.

‘Nothing to do with me - let them sort it out between themselves,' I hear you advise. But if that option is impossible, if the marriage has irretrievably broken down, and the media and public alike are baying for details of the divorce settlement, which way do you turn?

The choice is not, thankfully, often so stark for most local authority comms chiefs and their staff, who spend their daily working lives trying to juggle the sometimes conflicting interests of politicians and public servants.

But as well as managing that relationship, they also have to try and ­manage the public implications of new relationships between the council and the myriad local partner organisations that suddenly appear at the behest
of Whitehall.

They also have to keep the show on the road under the welter of increasing demands for performance indicators, effective monitoring, and rigorous and constant appraisal.

Whether parish council or big city, the business of communicating local government in the 21st century is infinitely more complex, demanding and challenging than it was, say, ten years ago.

This is not about the politicisation of communications staff. It is about their crucial importance in a complex, ever-changing environment. 

In the very best local authorities, of course, you couldn't get a Best Value report between the council's political and managerial leadership: they speak with one voice, work as one team and share one vision.

But in other cities and towns across Britain, such unity of ­purpose can be thin on the ground.

Keeping everybody happy
Massaging egos, providing reassurance, reconciling different agendas, even offering relationship counselling and then negotiating who says what, when, to whom and how, is all part of the daily diet of a comms head. That is even before your team of more junior press officers working at the sharp end tries to explain the latest wave of school closures, another regeneration blunder or new social services scandal.

Most times we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. But because you work for a public service, trying to manage these crucially important relationships between officers and politicians is all done under the watchful gaze of staff, MPs, the government, funders, the business community, partners and media. And through them, the council's taxpayers, with their inconvenient votes every May.

And at your back, time's winged chariot hurries ever closer. The pressure is on to meet deadlines, produce words, stage pictures, create impressions, fix interviews, speed up, slim down and save money.

If you can hack it in this world, you can hack it anywhere. But be very careful, lest someone tries to shoot
the messenger.

Get your lines of accountability straight. Make sure you have proper line-management support that is sensitive to, and understands, the unique ­demands being placed on you. Get clarification about your precise role and responsibilities.

Finally, ensure that the limits of communication are appreciated and understood by politicians and management alike.

But if all else fails, just do your job. That's democracy.

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