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'I won over local media on pay'

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Katherine Kerswell began 2010 by publishing details of her salary and expenses online and calling on fellow local authority chief executives to do the same.

While it was a logical move for the president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers in a year when disclosure of senior officer pay above £150,000 will become a legal requirement, it was not groundbreaking.

Where Ms Kerswell, chief executive of Northamptonshire CC, has succeeded in leading by example is in garnering huge amounts of positive media coverage for her pay.

The following week, she was the subject of a front-page lead story headlined “Why I’m worth £197,000” in the Northampton Chronicle & Echo.

The inside story saw her arguing exactly that case, while an editorial later in the publication concluded that if getting “the best people possible” to lead the authority meant paying £200,000 a year “then so be it”.

Positive

Similarly positive coverage ran in the Northants Evening Telegraph, with deputy editor Neil Pickford arguing that Ms Kerswell’s salary was “just a drop in the ocean” and that she “probably deserves more, not less”.

Most peers would kill for such positive coverage of - often lower - salaries. So what is the secret?

According to Ms Kerswell, it is openness coupled with an ongoing dialogue with local newspaper editors - especially the dailies - and a willingness to appear on local radio too.

She recommends monthly meetings between chiefs and editors as a way to build bridges and ensure that those with the power to directly influence residents’ sentiments are kept in the loop for all matters of importance that are known about in advance.

Combative

Ms Kerswell insists that no deals were struck ahead of the positive coverage that her salary declarations achieved, but accepts that some local media organisations are more combative than others.

“I didn’t know how it would play,” she says. “Some councils suffer from a very critical relationship with their local papers, but we haven’t had that kind of problem.

“The lesson in this for me is ‘we’ll support you in this if you are open with us’.”

While there was palpable relief at Northamptonshire’s communications department about the positive coverage, it is clear that Ms Kerswell thinks the personal touch is crucial, and that arming yourself with facts that compare your remuneration with other similar jobs is vital.

Recent Solace guidance advises chiefs to explain the breadth of their role and use nationally comparable figures for other public sector counterparts and private sector bosses to place their salaries in context.

Ms Kerswell chose to produce her own regional figures to explain how her pay compares with local counterparts.

‘Cheapest’

They showed her salary as a percentage of the authority’s gross budget, as a figure divided by the council’s full headcount, divided by resident, and finally by measuring the ratio of £1 of her salary to the council’s gross budget.

“I’m the third cheapest chief executive in the East Midlands,” she explains. Ms Kerswell calculates that she costs 29 pence per resident.

Most importantly, however, she warns chief executives not to embark on a value-for-money campaign without the full support of members. “You have to have members absolutely 100% backing you,” she says.

“And you need to stress that there is nothing untoward about the way the salary has been agreed.”

Courageous

Northants Evening Telegraph deputy editor Neil Pickford, who wrote the “drop in the ocean” opinion piece, believes Ms Kerswell’s decision to publish her pay was a courageous move.

And for him, there was no question of whether to back or attack the salary she earns. He accepts - and thinks most other journalists know - that the real power and knowledge in local government exists among officers.

“Chief executives need to be brave and explain what they earn, and what they do to earn it,” he says. “Only then will members of the public learn what a big job it is.”

Whether Ms Kerswell’s strategy would work everywhere is open to debate, but there is no doubt that it has certainly worked in Northamptonshire.

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