If local government was a brand on a supermarket shelf, what would
it be? My answer once got me into trouble with a group of council PR
I told them it reminded me of a product that unblocks drains - it works
a treat, but no one can remember its name and it languishes at the back
of the cupboard under the sink until the next time you need it.
That’s a pretty poor image for an industry that’s worth pounds 65
billion a year.
Local government needs to recognise the importance of brand
Many companies are now positioning themselves as the providers of
business solutions and local government needs to do the same.
When you think of council services, what do you think of? Town halls,
dustbins, council tax? Or well educated and confident children, clean
air, thriving local economies? Local government touches the lives of
every one of us, and provides the local answer to just about every
national question you can think of.
So why the gap in perception? What happens to makes such a vibrant and
important part of community life seem so dull? Some of the problem lies
with local government itself - years of funding cuts and central
Government interference have given some councils a siege mentality. A
recent MORI survey criticised local government’s performance in keeping
the public informed. British Telecom scored a 79 per cent rating. Local
government lagged in mid-league with 38 per cent. Talking to ourselves
is no longer an option.
It’s also about confidence in the product. The same survey found that
only a third of the public believe the public sector is worse at
communicating than the private sector, compared to nearly two-thirds of
public sector workers. As any psycho-babbler will tell you, other people
won’t love you if you don’t love yourself.
The Local Government Association, after less than a year in business,
has made a good start. Its members think its biggest success has been in
promoting a positive image of local government. But the key lies in the
500 individual local councils that make up the LGA , a third of which
still do not have a dedicated PR function.
Some of these councils will say that PR and local government don’t
We deal with real issues, they’ll say, not PR gloss. We’re providing
services, not selling baked beans. Keep your fancy ideas and let us do
the real work.
Exponents of this view can be found on exhibit in the Natural History
Museum. The rest of us recognise that unless we connect with the public,
Peter Mandelson recently urged local government to have ’more courage,
more confidence’ in promoting its unique role. We must grasp this
challenge in an increasingly competitive communications market.
Whether communicating with their own residents, the private sector or
MPs at Westminster, local councils need to be sure they are at the
cutting edge of good communications practice.
’If they haven’t heard it, you haven’t said it’ should be the guiding
principle. Local government needs to talk in a language people
understand, and be proud of what it does to make all our lives
Carol Grant is director of communications and public affairs at the
Local Government Association. The LGA conference ’Today and tomorrow:
the future of local government communication’ takes place on 12 March.