With Labour’s fortunes shining brighter than the sun in the
Teletubbies’ sky, PR people for organisations that suffered during the
Tory years need to beware. New Labour, new complacency.
’Look, the heat’s off,’ one council PR chief told me: ’our chief
executive is playing golf this weekend with the permanent secretary;
we’ve already been into see the minister four times.’
It won’t do. The honeymoon with ministers can’t last. And what about the
council-tax-paying public: they may have voted a Labour government in on
1 May but where is the evidence that they have suddenly converted to the
worth of town and county hall budgets or the efficiency and
effectiveness of municipal street cleaning, child care or schooling. In
Hackney, or Doncaster, or Westminster ?
The battle to win the hearts and minds of the public to the cause of
local government is far from over. Truth to tell, in many places it has
not yet begun. There remains a mammoth PR task of reaching out to a
local public which - consistent polling evidence shows - holds neither
councillors nor the business of elective local government in high enough
regard. High enough, that is, to ensure its survival in sound financial
health into the 21st century.
Now, while the political climate is (temporarily) favourable, is the
time to make ’public relations’ expansively defined as a central task
for town halls.
In too many cases, still, public relations are fobbed off to an ex-hack,
defined as mere press relations - by councillors blind to the decline in
In far too few councils, communications management is not yet recognised
as a top table task needing skills that are going to have to be paid for
on the same kind of professional scales that reward education and social
services directors - because without effective communications the very
existence of education and social services as local functions may be in
jeopardy, New Labour and all.
The message about messages needs to be hammered home. All members of an
authority’s staff and all elected councillors send signals all the time
about the nature of the council. Local authorities, like all
organisations, have a subliminal ’body language’ which says something
about their purposes and methods.
’Image’ may be hard to pin down in a multi-functional organisation which
impacts on all the public a little and some of the public a lot, but
chief executives and councillors have to see that the way their
organisation is perceived can augment its effectiveness.
The patience and politeness of the ticket seller at the baths says as
much about leisure services as any overt statement of council
Such messages are not easy to control; they may be difficult to
Local authorities none the less have a choice. They can let
communication happen randomly, and run the risk that conflicting,
incoherent or even negative messages are conveyed. Or they can plan,
influence, and monitor the ways they communicate. Which means making PR
a central responsibility of the highest seniority.