Opinion

Local Government and the media – a match made in… Brighton?


John Shewell, head of Comms at Brighton & Hove City Council, suggests that the local media should be approached to form a mutually beneficial partnership with local government. But is this a plan that can work?

Disclaimer: I currently work in local government communications and John Sherwell works for one of my partner authorities. All views expressed are very much my own and nothing to do with my immediate working environment.

In my experience (three authorities), local government and local media have a complex relationship.

On one hand, the media’s job is to scrutinise the work of the local authorities, highlight Council decisions and generally ensure that the rate-paying public have some idea of what’s going on without having to attend the torture of a Council meeting. In other words, they act to provide democratic accountability with impartial reporting (that’s the idea anyway).

On the other, the authority needs the media outlet to carry specific communications, whether these are relating to new campaigns, recent successes or general information. And the media often need these to create human interest stories or fill column inches (you have to love quiet news weeks).

Both the media and authority need each other, but for very different reasons.

It’s been widely reported that local print media circulations have been plummeting in recent years. And with a plethora of alternative news sources, even the most loosely engaged member of the public can get a rough handle on what’s going on without going anywhere near a traditional local media outlet. Plus I think that there is a large amount of cynicism out there – dwindling print revenues lead news desks to whip up lurid headlines and (often) poorly researched content in order to sell a few more copies and drive people to comment on the websites. This devalues the role of the local media outlet in question in a continuous downward spiral.

So I’m not sure about John Shewell’s intentions in bringing local media into the ‘partnership circle’. The media outlet knows that, if it is seen to be too deep in the local council’s pocket, its readers will be even more disillusioned and probably desert in even bigger droves. No-one likes a brown-nose.

Yes, it’s very admirable to want to support the local media, but at the end of the day, their job isn’t to make ‘fluffy fluffy’ with content – it’s to scrutinise, criticise (positively or negatively) and have some measure of impartiality. Co-operate, by all means, but get drawn into a ‘partnership circle’ – I’m not sure about that.

Furthermore, isn’t this what an effective PR department does anyway? For example, when we’ve launched a high-profile campaign, we’ve not just winged out a bit of PR and hoped for the best. We’ve phoned the journalists direct, established a rapport and ‘sold’ them into the story. OK so we’ve done some of their work for them (finding the human interest, tailoring to the specific local area etc) but we’ve done all of that without having to resort to a ‘partnership circle’.

I admit, I’ve had shouting matches on the phone with local media planners (them shouting, not me) but I’ve also had some brilliant conversations where they’ve understood not only what we’re trying to achieve but why we need their help to achieve it. It’s not a formalised partnership – just my team’s understanding of the news agenda and the way to get it right.

And there will be times when you need to keep your media buddies at arm’s length (or at least, do that while appearing to be their bestest new best friends) – hardly good partnership working…

Maybe I’m being too harsh (probably). I am slightly cynical myself however – Brighton & Hove have just set up their own internal communications agency in a similar fashion to Westminster and Essex. So are Mr Sherwood’s comments just a good way to do a bit of PR and raise the new agency’s profile? My gut feeling is that the ‘Super Communication Teams’ in Brighton/Westminster/Essex will be trying to gobble up the Comms teams of smaller authorities in the near future – a move which won’t go down well I’m sure…

And now this is me being really unfair, but I am reminded about a very particular quote from Sun-Tzu. It’s terribly appropriate, for all of the magnificence of media launches, receptions, flesh-pressing etc. Perhaps this is what Mr Shewell really means?

It will be interesting to see how it all pans out. And not least, how the local media report it…

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One thought on “Local Government and the media – a match made in… Brighton?

  1. Really nice post – and a really good point. That degree of separation is absolutely critical if there is to be any degree of trust in the news in local papers, currently at my authority the official Council paper is seen as a glorified sales brochure or Member’s achievements report.

    This all reminds me of the Star Wars quote, “the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”. Taking out the flagrant nerditry there, the message rings true that the more these super-comms teams try to take control of everything local, however benevolent their intentions, the more likely independents and bloggers are to take up the critical friend mantle.

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