Saturday, November 14, 2009

Public relations

Debra Davis, the PR supremo for Birmingham City Council - who recently admitted that after three years in charge, her department still wasn't fit for purpose - materialised on the Stirrer yesterday to promote the continuation of Forward, the council newspaper that quietly disappeared from clogging up Birmingham letterboxes over the course of the summer. As I've not had a copy delivered to me in two years and only pick it up from the library, I merely thought that the Tory/Liberal Regressive Partnership had dumped it as another of their cost-cutting measures to transform the business that is Birmingham (some of us still think that the council is there to provide services, but I suspect we're just old-fashioned).

It appears that those who thought that it had been dumped were wrong, a fact which has come as a surprise to a number of axe-loving Tory councillors, according to the Stirrer. If you can remember back to pre-2004, you may recall that the previous council newspaper was entitled Birmingham Voice and was regularly targetted by the Conservatives for immediate closure as they considered that the Labour administration used it for propaganda purposes. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the Tories took office, then Cllr John Hemming (Lib Dem) swiftly signed a new contract to replace the Labour propaganda rag with an entirely new and improved propaganda rag for the Regressive Partnership, doing a Windscale and renaming it Forward.. If you recall, an analysis of photographs published showed that 96% of photos used featured politicians from the Partnership, with just 4% from the opposition - and then usually only in the budget reply. Whitless himself managed the front page on 26 occasions.

Anyway, Forward isn't dead, apparently, merely resting.

While Forward has been sleeping, the PR team haven't. They've splashed out £3000 of our money to a private sector firm to carry out a consultation exercise on the future of the freesheet. Debra appears to have prejudged the answer, as she listed ten reasons to retain Forward on The Stirrer messageboards.
1. Birmingham City Council has a legislative duty to inform, consult and engage with residents
2. The council provides more than 800 services, which need to be promoted
3. At 7p per unit, per issue (£1.68 per household, per year) Forward provided good value for money
4. Local papers don't provide unlimited space and deliver to an estimated 420k households
5. Good communications always looks at research, analysis, feedback and evaluation - hence consultation
6. Consultation with councillors and focus groups will help us shape frequency, look, feel, tone of publications
7. Forward advertised jobs - especially useful in the current economic climate
8. Many citizens using our services don't access information published electronically - the alternative to a printed Forward
9. It increases our recycling target!
10. We have a platform that doesn't use such inflammatory language as online bloggers!
The consultation one is exceptionally interesting, but we'll come back to that at a later date.

Item 9 is my favourite, as it seems to suggest that thrusting twenty or so pages of paper through 420,000 doors (and onto countless city council front desks as well) is actually good for the environment as it increases the amount of paper recycled. It might be suggested that not cutting down the trees in the first place might actually be less damaging, but that's just me being picky. If we were to make Forward a daily publication and double the size, just think how much better those recycling figures would look! That's joined up local government, that is.

The jobs issue is an interesting one. It has been argued in the past that advertising posts through the council newspaper is cost-effective compared to advertising, but I'm not sure that this holds true any more. The job advertising market has now moved on-line and access to this is available through libraries, for example. Indeed, I was in South Yardley Library today and they were pushing a drop-in session to provide advice on job hunting and cv writing - an excellent service and proof positive of the importance of libraries as community centres. If you are looking for work, then perhaps waiting for the council to shove an opportunity through your door might not be showing sufficient dedication to the pursuit of employment to satisfy the requirement to be actively seeking work. Let's set aside the fact that the current plans for the council envisage the loss of thousands of posts rather than wholesale recruitment, which has been on hold for some while for posts that fall vacant. If Debra got the memo from Stephen Hughes which promised 30% budget cuts, she should probably read it.

The question then arises - if this is such a good idea, why has it been suspended for the past few months? The answer, revealed in a posting on the council's Birmingham Newsroom communications website, is that it was put on hold to review the service and also
importantly, to save money
There is another question. Why splash out £3000 on a consultation process when
According to a recent, free readership survey, those who did read it liked the information and wanted it continued. Those who missed delivery for various reasons often called the office to get one. Focus groups conducted in 2007 suggested ways to improve Forward — and the groups reinforced the claim that if you read Forward, it was well received

In addition, there was a session on Council newspapers at the LG Comms conference in May this year, which showed that most councils operate a newspaper of some sort, with varying frequencies and designs.

There are a couple of disturbing paragraphs in that posting, though.
I was incensed, provoked and saddened by The Stirrer’s editor’s vicious reference to the Forward publication...

Top marks for defending your people and their hard work, but in recent years, the freesheet has descended into blatant publicity for the political leadership of the council, not the achievements of Birmingham.

Part of me is delighted to see Debra posting on the Stirrer - it is good to engage with people - but I'm also concerned that she may be stepping into a political arena, which is not somewhere that politically-restricted council officers should tread. It is her place to advise the politicians, but that advice is traditionally dispensed outside of the public forum. As she notes about the future or otherwise of Forward,
It is not my decision, though it will be a recommendation from officers who look at the finances, what people tell us and what will resonate with audiences. There will be options.

She's put herself and the councillors in a difficult position. If the decision is taken to scrap the paper, then she'll have to try and justify that decision to the local press, with her own public opinion thrown back in her face at every turn and ammunition provided to the opposition to assault the ruling coalition (which I'm sure we'll exploit in full). Cllr Gareth Compton posted on The Stirrer with some advice for Ms Davis.
...you posted an article entering into the political debate about whether to scrap Forward or not, rather than defending its quality and content.Since you're now in the realm of offering public advice to members, here's some public advice for you: least said, soonest mended.

She also added
My comments in The Stirrer were designed to stimulate online reaction from the wide community of bloggers. Some of the comments are helpful and have been taken on board. At the same time, though, if bloggers would like to direct their thoughts and questions to me or my communications team we would be delighted to address them personally and privately.
Er. No. My thoughts and questions were posed on the messageboard and here. If anyone feels the need to engage with them, then those are the appropriate fora. The blogging community is one that respects openness and public debate and if you join in, them's the rules. We don't do 'private' as that reeks of an attempt to silence unsupportive thoughts or views.
But I have never lived in a city that seems to revel in the art of putting itself down quite like Birmingham. We need swaggering instead of sniggering

I've no problem selling the Birmingham brand - and I don't claim £15,000 in expenses to do it either. I'm intensely proud of my adopted city and the people who live and work here. We've got a great history and a better future because of people who come here. That's all fine and dandy. I don't do my city down, but I do have the right to comment on how local politicians behave and to have an opinion - and so does Adrian and anybody else on the Stirrer.

Finally - and most seriously for me - I think that Debra may have overstepped a very important mark.
Forward is not the story. The story is about the great work done by the Chief Executive, Stephen Hughes, who is leading an ambitious business transformation programme that will help to protect council services — in the midst of a recession that will impact greatly on public spending. The story is two major awards for the Housing Directorate led by Cllr John Lines and Elaine Elkington, Strategic Director. The story is about Deputy Leader Paul Tilsley’s extremely successful agenda and the series of events, such as ‘Hello Digital‘, that puts Birmingham in the lead on the digital agenda. And the story is the Leader of the Council Mike Whitby who is an incredible champion for Birmingham business in the Midlands, the UK and internationally. Selling the “Birmingham brand” is an essential part of what we all do.

My concern here is that three political leaders - Lines, Tilsley and Whitby - are all tied together as part of the "Birmingham brand." Some of us don't think that 'Slugger' Lines is a great advert for our city, but that's a debate for another day. I was concerned that there is now a council press officer sitting at the press desk in the council chamber during meetings - is that to keep an eye on what Paul Dale writes (or says)? Tying three elected members into the brand suggests that the council press office has a role to play in promoting politicians and that is dangerous ground to be on - it is only a few years ago that councillors simply weren't allowed to appear in the Birmingham Voice, unlike the situation in Forward, where you can hardly turn a page without seeing a Regressive Partnership councillor grinning out at you.

I'm not going to be painted as anti-Birmingham because I consider the current administration incompetent - that was a stick used by the Republicans in the USA to attack the 'liberal media' and cow them into submission.

Is the communications team working for Birmingham or for the Regressive Partnership?

The story is not what you tell us it is. It may well be about the £14 million siphoned off by Paul Tilsley to refill the empty coffers of the Social Services department. It might be about the £1 million wasted on a blank Big Screen in Victoria Square. It might be the closure of the council-run Meals on Wheels service - another service that received massive support from users during a 'consultation' process, but still faces the axe. It might be about the rock-bottom morale of council staff. It might be about the mystery that is Business Transformation, which promises massive returns, but the exact value of those savings varies depending upon whom you ask and it also seems to be failing to deliver. It might still be about the disastrous website, which is still chock-full of poor links and turned up hugely over budget and years late. The story is whatever it turns out to be and communications gets to spin it.

And sadly, given the ending of Debra's blog post, which was published in advance of the problems at Millennium Point,
...today there is a stellar line up of celebrities at the Christmas Lights Switch On at Millennium Point. In spite of the recession, there are still many things to celebrate in the coming season of goodwill!
it might be about management of large events as 60 people were injured.

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