City council should forget PR gurus: A decent reputation will come by doing a good job.

The city council's headquarters in Stoke.

The city council’s headquarters in Stoke.

Sometimes I despair, I really do. The fact that Stoke-on-Trent City Council felt it necessary to commission a reputational survey in late 2012 speaks volumes about the paranoia gripping the Civic Centre.

Does anyone really believe giving a PR firm run by another local authority ‘darn sarf’ £25,000 to telephone people across the Potteries represents a sensible use of taxpayers’ money?

I’d love to know who’s idea this was. Was it prompted by a senior officer, fresh in post, trying to make his or her mark?

Was it done at the behest of councillors fixating on the odd negative headline?

Or was it suggested by a highly-paid consultant – perhaps one of the Westco brigade (yes, we still pay oodles of cash for that sort of thing).

Is it any wonder that many people have little faith in the authority when it sanctions the frittering away of taxpayers’ cash on nonsense like this?

Let’s examine the ground-breaking findings of this document which is presumably titled: ‘Stating the bleedin’ obvious’.

Yes the survey produced such telling insights as ‘the perception that the council provides good value for money, at 30 per cent, is 26 points below the national average.’

Presumably this score wasn’t helped when respondents were told how much the daft survey was costing.

My favourite paragraph, however, reads: ‘The impact of reading The Sentinel is strong. Residents who have read it are more likely to form a negative judgement of the council. This is likely in part to be the newspaper reinforcing the views of local people.’

Goodness me. Heaven forbid a local newspaper reflects the views of local people. Whatever next.

Conversely, the report found that people reading the council’s own glossy newsletter – Our City – were more likely to view the authority positively. How about that?

So the newsletter which the council pays for and fills with its own propaganda gives a more positive impression of the local authority.

Could that perhaps be because it is hugely biased and not in any way balanced?

I do wonder when the penny will finally drop for senior officers and councillors that they just can’t ‘win ’em all’.

I’ve been a journalist long enough to remember the council’s two-strong press office of the early nineties.

Now the authority has legions of communications staff and – during my 16 years at The Sentinel – has gone through half a dozen PR gurus, each with their own flawed philosophy.

One kept trying to slap injunctions on this newspaper to prevent us from publishing stories the administration at the time didn’t like.

He didn’t last long.

Then, on his arrival, another PR expert famously summoned The Sentinel’s entire senior editorial team to the Civic Centre for a dressing down.

His opening gambit was to tell our previous Editor that his newspaper was way down the pecking order behind Sky TV, ITN and all the national newspapers (because, of course, they’re here a lot).

We all walked out of the meeting and needless to say that bloke didn’t last long either.

About 10 years ago the city council audited The Sentinel over several months and found that around 74 per cent of council-related stories were positive or neutral – thus exploding the myth that this newspaper only peddles bad news.

I dare say very little has changed as we’re not in the business of turning down positive news stories as and when we are presented with them.

Thus the suggestion that the council now aims for a two-to-one ratio of positive to negative stories is nonsense because this is already happening.

The fact is this newspaper will never shy away from challenging local organisations – including the council.

If the authority has a poor reputation I would suggest there are several reasons why this is the case.

Huge PR gaffs in recent years (deciding to let TV cameras in to film the documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank was one) don’t help. Just thinking about the millions of people who watched that makes me cringe.

The camels no-show in Hanley last Christmas was yet another daft, embarrassing failure.

I could go on as there have been many.

Then there’s the trust issue. The Dimensions splash pool saga was hugely damaging to the council’s reputation – irrespective of who was involved.

As is the fact that the ludicrously-named City Sentral shopping complex still doesn’t exist despite all the hype.

You see, it’s no use blaming the developer in this situation. If you nail your colours to a mast then there’s no point trying to disassociate yourself with the ship when it flounders.

I also think that there is a perception that the leadership at the council simply doesn’t listen to ordinary people – adopting instead a ‘we know best’ approach to everything from cost-cutting to promotion of the city.

I would suggest a little humility and the occasional holding up of hands and admitting mistakes would go a long way in terms of establishing trust and credibility.

Finally, there’s no doubt in my mind that many people think the council often gets its priorities wrong.

For example, it spent £800,000 on bringing a cycle race (watched by three men and a dog on ITV4) to Stoke-on-Trent.

It is again about to spend a minimum £250,000 on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show which none of us will ever see – the tangible benefits of which are, to date, zero.
For what it’s worth, here’s my PR advice (and it’s free):

*Stop worrying about things you can’t change and stop sulking over occasional negative headlines or readers’ letters in The Sentinel. People don’t tend to put pen to paper if they’re ‘satisfied’;

*Accept that you’re in the business of cutting services, thanks to central Government, and this inevitably makes the council unpopular. Yes, it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is;

*Listen more closely to taxpayers and the things they care about. Show a little empathy when you’re cutting services rather than hiding behind economics;

*Focus on all the positive things which are happening across the city (and there are many) and start valuing the terrific staff you employ;

*Stop seeing the local media as the enemy or something which can be neutered or controlled. It can’t be and won’t be.

You see, it’s not rocket science, this PR lark – despite what highly-paid consultants might try to tell you.

It’s just about knowing how and when to roll with the punches because, frankly, some things aren’t worth going to war over.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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