You know how when sometimes you read something. And you just have to put pen to paper...
Journalists are interesting beasts aren’t they? Most of you will know that intimately, as you are either a former journalist yourself, work closely with colleagues who were journalists in a past life, or deal with them in a daily basis through your job.
Regional journalists exist in a state of dichotomy. One hand they are generally irritated by bureaucracy, can have an outdated image of local government (as wasteful, useless and full of people who couldn’t survive in the real world), have little time for complexity (and local government is complex), may or may not believe in public service, and may or may not believe in the need to employ people to deliver it.
On the other hand they have a passion for truth and clarity, they want openness and they use great communication to tell stories.
So, just like a good comms officer really. They are also faced with a massively changing industry, with little time to adapt and little job security. Ah: so with familiarity comes contempt.
Some journalists are struggling with the change in their industry: they believe in what they do and are irritated that it is no longer valued, or wanted, by the public in the way that it was.
Local government officers are faced with change but for different reasons, and can struggle too, but there can be few people who work in the public sector who don’t recognise the need for change in the new world.
Finally journalists are annoyed by their need for Communications teams: in reality much of what remains in regional journalism is based on council stories. We’ve all known time-pressed journalists print the material we’ve given them word for word. In reality the relationship is symbiotic, and that doesn’t always sit comfortably with a journalist who is rightly proud of their independence.
The contradictions of the journalistic character came to the fore in a recent article about local government comms teams published by the Press Gazette. It starts by stating that “Local councils now employ at least 3,400 comms staff – more than double the total for central government” and goes on to list those teams with more than 20 people, bemoan the loss of the regional press, liken comms teams to political spin doctors and (morally questionably in my opinion, given that it uses unconsulted victims of crime to make a point) postulate that women in Rotherham who were abused would prefer the money to be used elsewhere.
As pointed out by Aoife Ni Dhubhaigh on Twitter (@duffyeva) it equates comms as only being about news (and newspapers) and fails to recognise our enormous new duty to raise awareness and change behaviour in relation to public health.
Balance is provided by the National Union of Journalists which refers to the story as “(seeking a) quick win for those wanting to make cheap, ill-informed or just plain antagonistic points” and highlights the varied role of comms teams and the fact that a typical council has less than one member of comms staff for every 15,000 residents, costing less than one penny per week.
It’s a throwaway article to be honest, which does nothing to explore the role of communications in local services. It is absolutely right and fair that we are open about the number of people we employ through the public purse, the work we do and what we achieve. We should be held to account at every turn. We should do our jobs to the best of our ability every day, as should everyone. This article is not the Press Gazette’s best job: its methodology is highly suspect, with a comms person who works a single hour per week being rounded up to one whole full time equivalent.
I may not have studied maths in more than 15 years, but even I know you only round up when a figure is 0.5 or over. The article also criticises some councils for not including marketing staff in the figures provided with an admonishing note stating “the Press Gazette would have expected this”. Now, I would have included that figure personally, but if you want a specific answer, then ask a specific question. I’m sure they teach that in journalism training.
Have a look at the article and see what you think, and at Cormac Smith’s reponse. In my opinion this article was driven by (potentially understandable) envy, but then journalism is a beleaguered industry, cut to ribbons by changing times.
And let’s not forget that local government officers, and local gov comms officers in particular, often have our own enviable persecution complexes. If this article opens up a proper debate then that is useful, and we should be confident in engaging in that debate.
Comms teams have an important role in local democracy and local quality of life. The number of people we employ will change, as we have already seen, as we seek to be more flexible, responsible and effective. We should be challenged to do our best job and prove our worth every day: so should journalists.
Press Gazette, by all means ask the questions, but use the answers for something more valuable than tomorrow’s chip papers.
Julie Waddicor is Campaigns and Internal Communications Manager at Staffordshire County Council