ANALYSIS: PR’s new power base in local government

Career paths in local government PR are changing as councils begin to wake up to the fact that PR professionals are the right people to play a key role in determining policy

Career paths in local government PR are changing as councils begin to

wake up to the fact that PR professionals are the right people to play a

key role in determining policy

This month another local authority pinned its PR colours to the mast,

when Camden Council announced its next communications chief will be

brought in at the dizzy height of assistant chief executive.

Camden’s formal elevation of public relations to its board anticipates

the departure of Lorraine Langham, its existing communications chief, to

Hackney Council, where she becomes assistant chief executive (PR and


Langham, who joined Camden as head of communications in 1993, leaves as

its acting assistant chief executive. Such high-profile posts, and the

accompanying lucrative salaries, suggest that local government PR, so

long the Cinderella of the public relations world, is finally going to

the ball.

Alan Pickstick, head of communications at the Local Government

Information Unit, believes there is a trend towards promoting public

relations executives to central council positions.

Although he stresses that top PR posts at ACE (assistant chief

executive) level still remain the exception rather than the norm, he

says a number of newly-created single tier authorities have taken the

opportunity to rationalise their fragmented publicity, marketing and

communications functions, under PR supremos at enhanced ACE-grade


David Pead, editor of the Local Government Chronicle, also detects a

move towards appointing communications experts at the most senior

levels, although he suspects the broadened Camden job spec was actually

designed especially for Langham.

Langham herself is a well-known advocate of local government public

relations officers taking on more responsibility for shaping policy

rather than simply ‘packaging’ it. She chairs both the IPR’s local

government group and PRO London, a body set up earlier this year to

encourage networking and best practice among council public relations

staff in the capital.

And, along with Pickstick, she asserts that it is not just high-profile

London boroughs that are putting professional PR skills at the heart of


‘Knowsley Council [in Merseyside] and Hertfordshire County Council have

also recently appointed public relations people at very senior levels,’

she notes.

‘These councils are recognising that PR can bring to the table more than

the ability to package decisions,’ she says. ‘They can help advise on

the implications of these decisions before they are made.’

Hamish Davidson, of Price Waterhouse Executive Search and Selection, who

was responsible for recruiting Langham to the Hackney role and is also

handling the search for her successor at Camden, warns that it is too

early to predict a deluge of PR assistant chief executives.

However, he says: ‘Surrey County Council is about to advertise a similar

post, and I can see more and more examples where councils are viewing

communications as far more than simply running a reactive press office.’

If the growing number of senior PR posts in local government require

political nous, and sharp reactive and strategic skills, they also

require management and budgetary flair. The Camden role, for example,

involves managing various council functions, employing around one

hundred people, and a communications budget well into seven figures - a

budget commitment which has raised the critical attention of local

media, such as the left-leaning Camden New Journal.

Such extensive communications empires may attract the sneers of

opponents, but they also, of course, attract substantial salaries for

those that head them. At Hackney, Langham will earn pounds 60,000 a

year, while her replacement at Camden will command a salary of pounds


Will such salaries begin to attract candidates to local government PR

with substantial private sector experience? Although Langham believes

some form of public sector experience remains a key advantage in

competing for such senior posts, Pead suggests the career paths of

senior council PR staff may be set to change.

‘Careers paths in local government are changing, and not just for PR,’

he says.

‘Increasingly senior people are hopping in and out of local government

for periods in consultancy, and a natural extension of that is that

councils may also look outside the sector for professional experience.’

And if council PR bosses are finally starting to earn big bucks, then

it’s no more than they deserve, says Langham, who contends that the best

public relations officers have always played a key, if informal, role in

council management.

‘Good PR people have always sought to head problems off at the pass and

not just package what’s happened,’ she says. ‘Public expectations of

public sector services are growing, and PR has to grab its role in

this,’ she adds. ‘Good PROs are doing that, and the fortunate ones are

being recognised for it.’

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in