Nicholas Jones was asked by the Local Government Association to speak at a conference in London (25.2.2008) on strengthening local democracy and address the question: How councillors can get a better press and is this diferent from individual councillors getting a good press?
My advice to local councillors when considering how to promote your work and that of your authority has to be pretty blunt: set your political differences aside, at least some of the time; do act collectively; and do go on the offensive. For some years I have been a regular lecturer with the Young Local Authority programme which runs courses to encourage young thinkers and speakers in the local authorities. Your youngest staff are some of the most enthusiastic and most committed public servants in the country and what they tell me is that they only wish their councillors would do more to raise the profile of council work and to stand up to the negative reporting which appears in so many of their local newspapers.
That is a message which I wholeheartedly endorse. If you believe you are not being fairly reported by the local press, go on the offensive. Every local authority has a website. Why not use it to challenge misreporting. Local councils could easily reproduce offending articles from local newspapers and then run alongside them a precise account of what the local authority has said. Set out precisely what the council is proposing and make it clear why you think the news report -- and especially the headline -- is incorrect. The local editor and reporters won’t like it. They are not used to being challenged. But believe me they will take notice and will be careful not to repeat the same mistakes.
The reason why this doesn’t happen is because party political differences and arguments so often get in the way and prevent the authority speaking with a united voice. But when it comes to services like parking control -- which are never going to be popular -- there is no reason why councils don’t do more to explain their case. The staff say they hate being demonised by wildly inaccurate reporting. The same advice about acting collectively applies to blogs and websites. I always ask young local authority workers if their councils monitor such sites and have a policy of engagement, of using the internet to explain why decisions are taken. Why don’t councils post their answers on such sites? Is there a member of staff whose job it is to respond to blogs?
All too often the answer is no because the parties won’t agree. I also give lectures to trainee press officers, studying for qualifications in communications. I am sorry to have to say it but they too put the blame on local authority members for being consumed by the need to score party political points rather than act collectively to strengthen the good name of local authorities. I speak with some conviction on this subject: I spent ten years of my life attending council meetings -- from parish councils, to urban districts (as they once were) and on to city and county councils in Oxford and Leicester where I was a local government correspondent. In the early 1970s, when I joined the BBC, Radio Leicester used to broadcast live the proceedings of the city council. And this brings me on to the advice I would give you individually.
Reporters don’t get out and about as much as they once did; very few attend council meetings. It is now up to you as councillors to work out how best to present yourselves. My advice would be to take a close interest in particular issues and subjects and try to become an authority on your subject, so that your opinions and quotes are sought after by journalists. What is so important is to remember that journalists often want comments and quotes which are thoughtful and topical and not necessarily politically loaded. It will help you so much to become a respected authority on the issues that concern you most of all if you can sometimes address them in a non-partisan way.
Yes local politics are the lifeblood of council work. But do remember that if your comments are always in the form of a political attack, that does sometimes limit their use. So difficult though it might be when the local press has drastically reduced its reporting of local authorities, when journalistic standards are not what they once were, there are opportunities out there for you all, both collectively and individually. Don’t let legitimate political rivalries get in the way. Local councils are misunderstood enough as it is and with the expansion of the internet you do have a new opportunity to be more assertive.