Doorstepping celebrities hardly seems like a natural stepping stone to local government, but for Marina Pirotta, who has sold her fledgling local government public relations consultancy for £2.75m, it propelled her into the town hall press office.
She was doing shifts at The Daily Express and, to her horror, was moved to the celebrity desk. The turning point came when she was sent to find actress Jenny Seagrove, then dating superannuated film director Michael Winner.
A way out lay in a freelance position at Islington LBC?s press office. ?I thought it was going to be a doddle, just answering press queries. The image of local government was so bad anyway and my stereotype of it was exactly the same as everybody else?s. When I got there I was absolutely shocked at how much the communications team was having to deal with,? she says.
Ms Pirotta realised she enjoyed the cut and thrust of a council press office, so much so that, after a stint at Newham LBC, she ended up at Hackney LBC ? just when chief executive Tony Elliston was trying to overhaul the troubled council with his controversial plan, Transforming Hackney.
Ms Pirotta says: ?Working for a council which was in no overall control was incredibly difficult because you had no political direction. We never quoted members at all.
?We had battles in the council chamber between not just members of different political groups but between members of the same group. It was ludicrous. It was local politics at its worst,? she says.
The borough was under the media spotlight like no other council in the country and there were days when Ms Pirotta was fielding press calls non-stop. She feels that Hackney usually got fair coverage but other colleagues disagreed.
?If you are one of the people who are being quoted you are always much more sensitive. I can understand why people who are more divorced from media relations feel the press is a bit skewed.
?If a council is in difficulty the press has got a duty to report that because it?s council taxpayers? money. No one says being publicly accountable is easy,? she says.
She left Hackney because, as with many other departments, her budget was cut in half. She ended up at Brent LBC where, in partnership with the police and the local community, she set up the Not Another Drop campaign. This cut gun crime in the notoriously violent area of Harlesden by 25%. The campaign was notable for its uncompromising imagery ? the first poster used a picture of a man lying in a pool of blood. The parents of a man who had been shot dead wrongly accused the campaign team of using a photograph of their son.
Ms Pirotta says: ?The image was supposed to provoke people, you couldn?t just walk by. It did the trick. Within 24 hours all 70 noticeboards had been whitewashed, probably by gangsters. I do not regret that poster
?The number of complaints we had from members of the community I could count on one hand, whereas we had a huge amount of positive information from the local community. The campaign is still going strong and it is run by the community. To get a campaign to that level, to get young people supporting it and coming up with posters and talking about it, I get a huge amount of pride in that,? she says.
That campaign won Brent LGC?s PR team of the year in 2001 and Ms Pirotta began to get phone calls from other council press officers wanting a copy of her co mmunications strategy. In four weeks she sent out 70 copies and she realised there was a market for consultancy work.
She also felt she had gone as far as she could in local government. ?If there is one thing I am critical of in local government, it is that, in a lot of disciplines, there aren?t the right development opportunities. For me I felt I couldn?t break through the glass ceiling of communications,? she says.
Local government?s loss is Ms Pirotta?s bank manager?s gain and after just 16 months of working for herself with three staff she was approached by Tribal GWT. It took her 10 months to be convinced, but she eventually decided to join up with the consultancy firm. She is the first PR millionaire in local government.
She will stay with Tribal for at least three years and is committed to seeing her company grow. Ms Pirotta is now reportedly doing communications strategies for those in the ?excellent? category.
?Most poor-performing councils need to improve their internal communications, their residents? magazine and they need a regular A-to-Z. It is not rocket science. Working in ?excellent? councils is just as much of a challenge, as you?re pushing at new frontiers, you?re finding new ways of communicating,? she says.
But she adds, with a gleam in her eye: ?Having said that, I love working in poor-performing councils. Particularly when they have negative media coverage.?