Westminster City Council head of comms Alex Aiken recently argued that the paper’s attack had damaged the reputation of councils and that, despite the positive effects on recycling rates, so-called Alternate Weekly Collection of rubbish should essentially be scrapped because newspapers and columnists were against the change. Put simply, this is a load of old rubbish.
The local elections provided an almost unique opportunity to analyse the effects of national newspaper coverage on the attitudes of people. Did a two week campaign by the Daily Mail, followed by the rest of Fleet Street, ahead of the largest electoral test outside of a general election have any short term influence? Or do newspapers tell people, not what to think, but what to think about? In other words – was it the bins wot won it? In all, 312 councils were up for election with about 133 implementing the ‘fortnightly bin collections’ that the more right-wing papers were so up in arms about.
An analysis of the results shows that in all councils up for election, one in four changed political hands. Of those councils that had implemented the rubbish collection that so upset the right-wing press, 29 per cent changed political hands – a difference of four percent, which means around three more councils changed hands compared to the average. No political party that implemented the scheme more than 18 months ago lost and of the two councils that lost on the bin issue, had strong hostility in their area well before the national newspaper campaign started.
For example, Bracknell Forest Council implemented Alternate Weekly Collections last October and should have lost heavily. In fact, the Tory controlled council won an extra three seats. The secret was good communication with residents.
This can tell us three things about PR. Firstly, newspapers will tell people what to think but not what to think about. Secondly, that good direct communication with local people works. Finally, politicians have to make unpopular decisions to improve the long-term reputation of government – something that has got to be a good thing.
Richard Stokoe is head of news for the Local Government Association