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

No winners – only losers as Whitehall punishes Stoke-on-Trent

If you were harbouring any ambitions to go into local politics, then BBC4’s excellent documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank should have disabused you of the notion.
It’s one thing to be an MP, working much of the time in Westminster and somewhat shielded from your constituents by the fact that a) you are just one of 652 decision-makers and b) you may well be in opposition so can blame controversial decisions on those in power.
But when you dip your toe into the murky waters of town hall politics, the fact is there’s every chance you’ll have it bitten off if those who can be bothered to vote don’t like what’s happened in the previous 12 months.
Thursday’s programme, the first of three focusing on Stoke-on-Trent City Council, cleverly combined a behind-the-scenes look at the powers-that-be with some incredibly emotive footage of real people affected by unprecedented public-sector cuts.
It was the kind of documentary which reminds us that the BBC still does solid, fly-on-the-wall journalism. The only shame is that it was broadcast on BBC4.
The fact that the first episode was set in 2010 and early 2011 made it an even more gripping watch because we knew what was coming. It was akin to seeing a car crash in slow-motion and being unable to tear your eyes away.
I can’t think of another occasion where, in the space of 60 minutes, I’ve felt sympathy for so many people from different walks of life – from dementia sufferers and young mums to the rabbits in the headlights that were the elected members of the city council facing multi-million cutbacks early last year.
Sadly, at times the programme didn’t portray the city’s leaders in a great light.
The way in which the dementia sufferers at the Heathside House elderly care home, and their families, were treated by the city council was shabby, to say the least.
It felt very much as though they were an after-thought.
Even the whistle-stop visit to the place by council leader Mohammed Pervez – on the day politicians voted to shut it down – felt like a token gesture.
One can certainly argue that operating such care homes isn’t cost-effective and that the services they provide don’t fit with the council’s future care strategy. The problem is that we saw the human face of Heathside House, which made one question why anyone would ever want to fix something which clearly wasn’t broken.
What we saw was very frail and vulnerable people being looked after with great compassion and devotion by staff who had come to regard them as family.
What we saw were relatives driven to despair by the local authority’s callous disregard for ordinary people’s lives.
It left me thinking that surely the inevitable closure could have been handled better, perhaps phased over time, with more sensitivity and delivered with a more humane approach.
Perhaps the fact that the residents of Heathside House didn’t have a vocal campaign group collecting thousands of signatures and making life uncomfortable for the city council’s leadership was what did for the home in the end.
In sharp contrast, the mums who mobilised themselves to save seven of the city’s 16 children’s centres made themselves quite simply impossible to ignore.
With elections looming, it looked very much like the closure of the children’s centres was a bridge too far for some politicians.
Mr Pervez said the about-turn was because of a ‘moral duty’ to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities.
This, of course, begged the question why Heathside House was even considered for closure. Clearly, moral duty was on annual leave the day that decision was taken.
The truth is that in an ideal world, none of the council-run facilities would have been shut down and nobody would have been made redundant.
However, the maths simply didn’t add up and Mr Pervez and his colleagues faced some very unpalatable decisions.
That the children’s centres were spared offers one glimmer of hope because they are exactly the kind of invaluable learning resources that people with young families need in a city with desperately low levels of academic achievement and an aspirational vacuum.
These centres may help some families to escape the poverty trap that many now find themselves in.
They may also help other families to recognise that there is a cost to society when you have excessive numbers of children – something the couple in Meir with seven kids seemed oblivious to.
Set against the backdrop of a budget settlement which necessitated cuts totalling £36 million, Thursday’s programme underlined one thing: there were no winners round here – only victims and messengers to be shot.
Meanwhile, the real tragedy is that just over 130 miles away in Westminster where Stoke-on-Trent’s measly and unfair budget settlement was decided, none of this even registers.
Part two of The Day The Town Hall Shrank airs on BBC4 tonight at 9pm.