I was reading recently that the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is planning to ‘name and shame’ councils that use PR agencies.
In a strange and mis-targeted attack, he proclaims that the use is an ‘outrageous waste of taxpayers’ cash’, and wants to list 59 councils and the agency that represents them.
Among others, Pickles is intending to criticise Surrey County Council for its use of Grayling, Sunderland City Council for using Weber Shandwick, and Norfolk and Devon county councils and the County Councils Network for using Bellenden Public Affairs. ‘We are calling time on the scandalous practice of government lobbying government. It is an outrageous waste of taxpayers’ cash and contributed towards the corrosive culture of spin that Labour cultivated. Cutting this pointless practice should help councils protect frontline services. We are keen to maintain an open dialogue. However, this can be done by simply picking up the phone’.
Bell Pottinger’s Lord Bell has argued that Pickles’ comments ‘opposed to freedom of speech. It’s a load of sweeping generalisations that have no great merit when you look at them case by case. It’s the same old issue of someone condemning everything when they should just condemn some of it. I don’t understand the rhetoric they use. I hate these generalisations.’
Similarly, Jon McLeod, Weber Shandwick chairman of UK corporate comms and public affairs said: ‘For ministers to stifle the voice of local communities is laced with irony, especially when many local councils’ campaigns have been to prevent central government-inspired waste.’
In response, a Local Government Association spokesman said that ‘Local authorities only use public affairs agencies to win government support for major projects that are of vital importance to their residents.’
Surely it’s obvious that, along with any other service, using an outsourced public relations agency will add value providing you’re getting value for money and a decent return on your investment – which I do not doubt that these councils are. This common sense applies whether in the private and public sector, and after all, the coalition is about cutting waste and getting a proper return on investment.
There were some very valid comments left by readers on the piece in PR Week:
“Indiscriminately blitzing the PR landscape cannot possibly be a good long-term strategy. Effective communications between politicians and the communities they operate in leads to a more informed electorate. More of an investment than a waste…”
“It seems masochistic for a government led by PR people to cut PR, particularly when most local councils are using local agencies to cost-effectively engage with their communities.”
But the best by far: “I’d be intrigued to understand how the Communities Secretary got this message out. Did he ring direct or, ahem, did he use professional media relations advisors?”
Eric Pickles should be think much more carefully in future before making such ill-considered criticism of the PR community in a bid to improve his own reputation.
Gemma Carey, Bluewood Training Ltd, www.bluewoodtraining.com