UNITARY CONCERNS: New look local authorities are relying on PR to
explain the implications to the public
STAFF COMMUNICATIONS: Informed employees are better able to cope with
ISSUES MANAGEMENT: How local authority PR units fared in the wake of a
series of violent incidents in schools
Against a backdrop of re-organisation, budget cuts and social crises,
local authorities are placing increased importance on effective public
relations. Report by Margaret Hood
When local authority structures are turned on their heads on the first
of April, with the creation of new unitary councils, their metropolitan
cousins will be doubtless wishing them well, while suffering from a
distinct sense of deja vu. For they have been running the whole gamut of
local community services communication since 1974.
But what is mutually significant to both the re-organised unitary
authorities and the established metropolitan and London borough set-ups
(to the PR professional at least) is the dawn of, and recognition of,
communications skills within these often unwieldy and bureaucratic
structures and the increased salaries and status this entails.
Much attention has been paid to the fact that Hackney Council is
currently offering pounds 60,000 to the person who can organise its
communications, both internal and external. To many seasoned
professionalsoutside of local government, this sum will be peanuts. But
to other, local government employees in the public relations field, it
is a small fortune.
According to Lynda Denyer, head of PR press and information at Lambeth,
any local authority paying more than pounds 18,000 to a PR professional
is well on the way to recognising the complexities of the job.
‘Some see the head of communications as a job that falls in the pounds
16,000 to pounds 18,000 salary bracket,’ she says. ‘But it all depends
on the press attention a borough is getting. In London established
professionals are employed. Outside of the capital you may find an
individual struggling to convince a council that they would get a much
better image if they were more focused.’
Lambeth is about to advertise for a head of communications and
marketing, although the salary on offer has yet to be revealed. And
Knowsley District authority is recruiting a new head of media and
customer relations to replace Brian Harvey, now that he has been
promoted to assistant chief executive.
‘For public relations officers to make the jump to a more defined
management role means there is now better recognition of their
communications skills,’ says Harvey.
Other notable appointments include Beth Wagstaff to assistant chief
executive at Hertfordshire County Council and John Brown who has bee
promoted from head of Strathclyde public relations department to head of
PR for the City of Glasgow Council, taking over the daunting task of
communicating for a new unitary authority system.
In the Glasgow area, from 1 April, there will be 29 unitary councils to
replace a two tier system of 53 district councils and nine regional. In
the highest concentration of the Scottish population, Glasgow which has
19 district councils and one regional will be replaced by 12 unitary
authorities and, in Brown’s words: ‘a whole myriad of quangos’.
‘This is all very messy and very complex,’ says Brown. ‘We have to deal
with everything, which includes things like internal phone numbers
changing by the day. It is all quite fraught.’
Peter Dodson, the head of PR in the outgoing Cleveland County Council
and incoming head of Redcar and Cleveland, one of the four unitary units
to be formed, displays his north eastern wit and sense of irony when he
talks about the tasks ahead of him.
He explains that as the County Council is abolished, its services are
being split up among four new districts. Yet for ceremonial and related
purposes, for those areas north of the River Tees, we must use the Lord
Lieutenants of Durham. South Tees districts will be served by North
Yorkshire, although they are not in North Yorkshire. Other organisations
will operate under the name of Cleveland, they being the police force
and fire brigade, while marketing, training and enterprise activities
will still operate be under the name of Teesside (Teesside having been
created in 1969 and abolished in 1974.)
All of this poses quite a challenge to any public relations unit, most
of which are facing budget cuts across all council activity.
‘The district councils previously provided 20 per cent of local council
services and the County Council the rest - such as social services and
education, libraries, trading standards, highways and a whole lot more.
We will now be responsible for 100 per cent.So what is patently clear is
that there will be an increase in PR responsibilities for all of us. And
every inch of press coverage we achieve will be at the expense of
another district council,’ says Dodson.
‘On average we will handle at least one social services story a month
and a sensitive education story about once a week. From April the
district council public relations units will have to deal with those. I
suspect that there will be a very rapid learning curve among PR staff.’
Local government PR staff are now undoubtedly faced with a heavier
workload, combined with ever tighter budgets. And adding further to the
burden is a cut-back on staff from various divisions, such as social
services, whose overload is more often than not handed to the PR
faculty. Some would argue that this makes their role untenable,
especially as the press has never been so hot on reporting the latest
debacle over local politics or social services.
Others may claim that it has made their jobs more of a challenge, or
that their employers (elected councillors) have never needed them more,
or placed more prestige on their skills for providing a positive,
efficient pro-active media source as opposed to a defensive news
Lambeth, for example, has been faced with the task of axing pounds 46
million from its annual budget and trimming its PR department from a
massive 50 staff in the mid-1980s to just three now, until two more key
appointments are made. And all this when it is being inundated over
calls about running the worst schools in the country, although the press
made little mention of the fact that a primary school in Brixton falls
into the national top 100 league terms of educational achievement.
Heather Rabbits, the Lambeth chief executive who was brought in to sort
out the extraordinary deficit run up by the Metropolitan Borough, has
already demonstrated her confidence in the power of public relations by
forming a new communications department whose brief is to communicate
with residents and employees, and not just the press.
At the same time, like all other local authority press departments, the
staff must work in a similar fashion to a private agency, by operating
under a service level agreement, undertaking contracts with each of the
executive directors of the council, and selling their services to each
This looks unlikely to be a springboard for contracting out PR services
on a grand scale to the private sector. Although some services, such as
photography or magazine publishing, are contracted out to a varying
degree, Tory-controlled Westminster Council remains the only one to
employ a private PR agency.
The concept of contracting out increasingly complex public relations
responsibilities to the private sector is evidently and understandably
unpopular among in-house departments, who cite lack of day-to-day
contact as a precursor to an unsuccessful relationship.
Scottish councils have all but abandoned using external PR agencies and,
barring Westminster, English authorities have yet to make that leap.
According to Brown, Fife Council used a private public relations company
for 21 years, but has now established an in house service. And part of
Edinburgh’s regional council contracted out the PR brief, for a time.
Yet Andrew Hillier, senior account director of the PR consultancy John
Kendall Associates, who is contracted by the council to head up the
Westminster PR office and provide strategic consultancy, has an
understandably different view. His company took over at City Hall, one
of the country’s busiest local authority public relations units, last
Hillier is currently fielding media enquiries on Westminster City
Council’s decision in the 1980s to re-house families in asbestos riddled
flats, as well as handling the local implications of the BSE issue to
schools and other social services.
‘Our handling of BSE and the Barratt report has shown very clearly to
the Council the advantages of our approach,’ says Hillier. ‘It is easy
for me to take a step back and take the global view, and particularly to
understand how the general public will see the story as interpreted and
presented by the media. Council officers are expert in the detail of the
work they do for residents but we provide a strategic, rather than just
‘Because I recruit my own staff I can ensure that the team incorporates
a wide range of complementary specialist skills, most of which can only
be gained in the private sector. Also, I can allocate additional staff
to the team as and when I see fit. This flexibility would simply not be
possible if the office was staffed by the Council. I don’t know if any
other authorities will take this route. But it is working well at
Hillier’s views are not generally shared by his public sector
contemporaries. But the basic, common premise, is that the days of a
downmarket image featuring a grubby council press office staffed by
former hacks are over, a conclusion backed by the increasing recruitment
of PR executives who are fresh from university and clutching a degree
certificate in public relations. These raw recruits are being lead by
former top grade journalists. Their progress will be interesting.
In-house issues: Maintaining staff morale
Internal communications within local authority public relations
departments have never been so crucial. With heart-rending cuts in
expenditure, it falls on the hapless PR person to bolster office morale
when redundancies are looming.
And when local authorities are going through the biggest re-organisation
since 1974, it is up to them to keep everyone informed.
On a more positive note, the increasing lip service paid to
communications means that the PR department’s remit is increasing amid
savage cuts all around. This can either be interpreted as an elevation
of the public relations function or as a challenging and stress-ridden
Knowsley Council has probably gone furthest in developing internal
communications. It is currently advertising for a new employee
development officer who will be responsible for managing internal
communications among other development issues. And with outside help
from a consultancy specialising in internal communications, Smythe
Dorward Lambert, it has produced a so-called team briefing model. A
complex system which, via communication with individual council working
divisions, organises and filters information throughout departments,
which ultimately, and hopefully, means that everybody employed by the
council knows what is going on.
Other council approaches may not be so sophisticated, yet most are
putting limited resources into maximising their internal communications.
Lambeth’s 9,000 staff, recently reduced from 10,000, are being given a
staff newspaper for the first time since 1992. ‘An enormous amount of
house issues have to be addressed’ says Lambeth’s head of press and
information, Lynda Denyer.
Lambeth has produced the magazine in-house, yet an increasing amount of
publications are contracted out by councils.
Glasgow City Council, as the biggest employer in the city with a staff
of 38,000, pioneered the use of the BBC’s Select Services special
programmes to keep its staff informed, when numbers fell from a high of
104,000. It also resorted to putting messages into staff pay slips to
thank them for their hard work.
John Brown, head of public relations and marketing at the new Glasgow
Council, says that the exercise was ‘reasonably well appreciated’, but
adds: ‘Our biggest concern is to try and work with the personnel
department to try and inform people about what is going on. And we send
out a weekly vacancy list of jobs that are available.’
Case study: Unitary status for island life
The Isle of Wight may be an untypical case of a county adopting unitary
status, but as the only regional council now up and running, it
provides interest for those counties facing that prospect
Felix Hetherington, the authority’s chief executive, points out that it
stands apart from its new unitary cousins because it actually sought
unitary status. With a population of just 130,000 it was felt that three
separate councils were unnecessary.
Yet the island has its own idiosyncrasies and Hetherington is under no
illusion about his need for an efficient and enlightened PR function
and is actively seeking using private contractors in its lobbying
activities to bring in extra resources for the island.
Hetherington says, ‘In future, I think if anything there will be a
greater amount of money being invested in our PR resources, because
there is a recognition that it is an important way to communicate with
the powers that be.’
Yet the Isle of Wight is as ready as any to use outside companies to
help it in the communications stakes.
‘We have an open mind about privatising any function, because we are
keen to ensure this council gets good value for money,’ he says.
The Isle of Wight has worked with Westminster Strategy for the last two
years, initially enlisting the agency to lobby central governments for
extra funds for the local fire brigade. This was in the wake of animal
rights activists starting four fires in in 1994, and the Island having
to rely on help from fire engines coming byferry from the mainland! Its
lobbying resulted in an pounds 800,000 grant.
The Isle of Wight is not typical of the new unitary authorities because,
according to Hetherington, it was ripe for such a structure. And while
council staffing was reduced by 10 per cent, PR staffing was maintained.
And while he endorses the idea of tendering services to private, outside
consultants, the authority is indecisive about a new consultancy
recommendation, by PA Consulting, suggesting a restructure of senior
He notes that the PR unit is faced with an increased workload. ‘The
demands of running a new style local authority, particularly when we are
the first, are high,’ he adds.
Social studies: Schooled in sensitivity
Sensitive issues are becoming an increasing factor in the working day of
a local authority PR unit, mainly because of the explosion in media
interest and outlets. And this has forced local authority PR units to
get their act together in terms of handling crisis in a professional
Nobody likes to deal with the press when it comes down to giving out
information about a tragedy, and this is not a job for amateurs.
Cleveland Council has had more experience than it would probably like as
a result of the first widely report fatal stabbing of a child in a
primary school and the infamous child abuse cases of the eighties.
And Westminster Council’s press office was faced with the distinctly
nasty task of talking to the media about the recent, horrific killing of
one of its employees, headmaster Philip Lawrence, by a young boy
outside his school earlier this year.
Peter Dodson, County PR Officer for Cleveland County, explained what
it is like to field calls from the media.
‘Cleveland County has had a greater experience than any other local
authority of being in the firing line and talking to the press about
this sort of story,’ he says. ‘In 1987 we had the child abuse
controversy. And two years ago we had the murder of the schoolgirl,
Nikki Conroy, who was stabbed to death in a Middlesborough classroom.’
The experience was the catalyst in leading the then County Council to
mull over disillusionment in the relationship between the local
authority and the media and to deliberately court a high profile, pro-
active approach to media relations.
‘We moved from being defensive to taking a pro-active approach,’ says
Westminster Council had a more recent, harrowing experience when
fielding press enquiries about Lawrence’s murder. ‘I went over to St
George’s School immediately and managed the crisis from there,’ says
Westminster’s head of press and public affairs Andrew Hillier who
previously headed up an information and public affairs team at the
Central Electricity Generating Board prior to and during privatisation.
‘I am on the emergency planning team at Westminster because of my
experience in crisis management’
He was put in charge of all news media releases, liaising with the
Metropolitan Police, City Hall, Social Services and the Department of
Education. He was also requested by the Roman Catholic Diocese to act
Hillier pays tribute to the set-up at Westminster and the help they gave
him to handle such a difficult job, although he also pointed to the
groundwork already done in establishing the importance of communications
to the Council.
‘The working relationship I have established with Westminster Council
means that if I ask for help or assistance, they understand the
importance of it,’ he says.