“Look at these council communicators”, the critics say. “Why are taxpayers being forced to pay for spin?” Those lobbing criticism, at their most extreme, believe that it’s fine for private sector organisations to employ PR people, because they have to compete for business, but there’s little need for the state sector to employ them at all because they have a monopoly on the services they provide.
Actually, the reverse is true. The public has two choices when unhappy with the direction of a private company: Voice and Exit. Voice is where they turn to social media to vent their criticism, or write a letter of complaint. But many consumers just Exit: they ditch one supplier for another.
When services are provided by the public sector – such as street cleaning, applying for a dropped kerb or accessing social services – it’s unlikely that Exit is an option. Voting is all very well but the opportunity doesn’t appear every year and the public only gets to choose between very broad selections of policies.
So the public’s strongest recourse is Voice, and it’s why the public relations is actually an essential part – a core function – of what a council should do. Indeed, it is impossible to be an effective council without public relations. That’s because only by relating to the public (through listening and changing behaviour) can a council truly understand and serve its residents.
The debate is not helped by a fundamental misunderstanding of what public relations practitioners do. I collaborate with local government communicators most weeks and the people I come across are extremely professional public servants who help their councils function smoothly. The idea that these are sinister spin doctors dedicated to hoodwinking the public is a fantasy.
After all, many of them have signed up to an independent code of conduct, backed by a Royal Charter, which requires them to act honestly.
Moreover, only a minority of communication by council communication teams is media relations: they run public consultations, deal with enquiries from the public, ensure staff throughout their council are kept informed about what’s going on, do design and desktop publishing, run public events, respond to Freedom of Information requests, engage on social media, update the council website and so on. As for expenditure on media relations, it is surely the duty of any public authority to engage with local newspapers and respond to queries on their activities.
Rather than doing down local authority communicators, we should be celebrating their vital work in making councils understand and service their residents. They’re not an optional extra – they’re actually a backbone of our councils on which everything else relies.