Council communications teams have been warned: when culture secretary Ben Bradshaw spoke out against council publications recently, he did not pull any punches.
“You’ve got local authorities spending a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money employing armies of press officers to produce these propaganda sheetsmasquerading as newspapers,” he said.
At the same time, the Audit Commission is reviewing the value of council communications, focusing on newsletters and newspapers.
The unease about these publications is inevitable in the current financial climate. Local Government Association research shows around 350 councils in England and Wales have their own publications. But with these coming under the spotlight, some councils have decided there are better ways of communicating with residents.
Doncaster MBC and Cornwall CC are among those to have recently scrapped their papers, while Birmingham CC and Essex CC are both reviewing this communications model. Lancashire CC recently said it was cutting its monthly Vision magazine to only two issues a year, saving nearly £300,000.
Essex currently publishes a bi-monthly magazine that goes to 600,000 households. But it may not last much longer. “We must think about whether it represents value for money,” says the council’s head of communications, Giles Roca. “So we’re looking at all the options.”
Other councils are being urged to follow suit. Darlington BC’s opposition leader recently called for the council magazine to be scrapped. “The citizens of Darlington should not be subsidising it,” said Conservative councillor Heather Scott.
However, Mr Roca insists the changes in Essex are not motivated by politics or media flak. “This is being driven by finance,” he says.
“If we don’t do anything, in three years’ time this organisation will be looking at a £300m funding gap. We must change.”
Communications bosses agree money must be saved. While some are scrapping their publications, others have come up with ways of cutting production costs.
Hackney LBC is standing by its fortnightly freesheet, which goes out to all 100,000 Practice briefing: communications households and businesses in the borough. To lessen the impact of a fall in commercial advertising, the council shaved more than 25% off the cost of production. Interim head of communications Carl Welham says: “We’ve cut costs with joint procurement. We’re buying the print and distribution jointly with other neighbouring boroughs so we get a discount.”
Hillingdon LBC is also keeping its bi-monthly publication - because research shows its residents prefer to receive important information about public services that way. Its communications director, David Holdstock, says other forms of communication will have to be cut instead.
“It’s about reducing the material that people are not so keen on and using money for the vehicles that people do find useful,” he says.
Some communications chiefs also defend council publications by pointing to the high cost of advertising in local papers. It can often be cheaper to have your own
publication, they argue.
With printed publications under scrutiny, councils are turning to the internet to communicate with residents. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are common practice, while mobile content for young people is also gaining popularity.
Communicating online may save money, but may exclude those less likely to be connected to the internet, like elderly people
David Singleton, News editor, PR Week
Some councils are considering making the residents’ magazine an online publication, but not everyone is web-savvy, and not everyone has access to the internet.
Mr Roca says that councils should focus on doing more to get their residents online.
“You’ve got plenty of people in their 60s and 70s who log on,” he says. “What we have to do is make councils’ sites more relevant, more interesting. We’ve got to pullpeople in by improving the quality of them.”
However, those without a web connection cannot be ignored. “One of the options we’re looking at is having an online version but also some kind of residual hard copyfor that demographic who are not au fait with technology,” he says.
Council communications teams have little choice but to trim the fat off expensive publications, and all councils must now consider the cheaper digital alternatives.
But does any of this go far enough?
A radical cost-saving solution is being proposed by Mr Holdstock, who is also on the executive committee of LG Communications, which promotes excellence in local
government communications. He says the next step will involve councils joining forces with other public services.
“Some councils are looking at public sector communications hubs - basically an integrated communications team that delivers communications for the council, NHS and police.”
Richmond upon Thames LBC communications chief Cormac Smith is convinced it is only a matter of time before such a scheme is adopted.
“This is going to happen, because it’s going to save money… and it’s going to allow us to communicate more effectively,” he says.
“Speaking with one voice has got to be more effective than speaking with half a dozen voices.”
David Singleton, News editor, PR Week
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