Public Sector: Councillors criticise comms chief

Waltham Forest councillors attack appointment but council comms bosses play down concerns.

Councillors at Waltham Forest Borough Council are protesting over the local authority's appointment of a 'partisan' press officer to its top comms role.

As previously reported (PRWeek, 14 August), Joe Derrett joins the London borough as head of media and external relations next month, after working at the Mayor of London's office as deputy chief press officer since August 2006. Before this, Derrett was head of the London Labour Party's press office.

Councillor Matt Davis, Conservative group leader, is now seeking a meeting with the council's chief executive Andrew Kilburn to discuss the matter.

He told the Waltham Forest News: 'I am extremely concerned that anybody who has been a partisan political party press officer should have been employed by the council without any reference to members. It will be for him to prove to the non-Labour councillors that he can do the job in an unbiased, even-handed and non party-political manner.'

Derrett is believed to have left his last position at City Hall because he did not want to work under Conservative mayor Boris Johnson. His appointment at Waltham Forest has led to complaints from Waltham Forest's Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors that they were not consulted on his appointment.

The councillors' challenge raises the issue of the acceptability of political PROs taking civil service roles. But local authority comms chiefs stood up for Derrett.

The CIPR local public services group's chair Ashley Wilcox - also Camden Borough Council corporate comms manager - said Derrett should be 'trusted to work within the boundaries of the publicity code'.

'It isn't fair for councillors to accuse Derrett of political leanings because of who he has worked for in the past. Let him get on with the job and communicate council services to residents,' he added.

Westminster City Council director of comms Alex Aiken, himself a former Conservative party head of news, criticised the councillors. He said: 'Local politicians should judge him by the results he gets, not his history. PR professionals have to abide by the code of conduct and act for the authority as a whole. He clearly would not have taken the job unless he understood this constraint, and had worked under the relevant legislation at the GLA.'

Aiken added that Derrett's experience would be of value to the council in the run up to the 2012 Olympics.

HOW I SEE IT - JOHN SHEWELL, Head of corporate comms, Brighton and Hove City Council

I can understand why opposition councillors would raise concerns over an appointment of a former political party press officer. The challenge for anyone coming from a political party into local government is to maintain political neutrality.

The test for Joe Derrett is whether he can successfully navigate through the politics and emerge as a credible comms professional who is focused on improving the reputation of the council.

An advantage of hiring someone with party political experience is they understand the political landscape.

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