by Mandy Pearse
It is high time that government looked, listened and learnt from the innovative PR practice in local government instead of telling Councils how to communicate with their citizens.
Taking Hackney Council through the courts to stop it producing a fortnightly council newspaper is a clear example of dogma versus evidence.
Councils have a duty to provide public information to their residents at the best value for money they can. Hackney Council argued that by placing their public notices and job adverts in their own newspaper and using the money they would have spent on these adverts to fund the publication there was a dual benefit in that every resident received both statutory information and useful information on services in a timely way.
The scandal at the heart of this issue is the insistence of government that councils must pay to place public notices in printed local newspapers. In many cases these print papers have low circulation and in some areas there is no truly local newspaper anymore.
No credible evidence was ever produced by the newspaper industry to show that Council publications hit their advertising revenue. This is an argument which should have been binned over a decade ago.
The news industry is vital to the scrutiny of local government and no Council would wish to lose its local reporters and most welcome the BBC funded local democracy reporters. But news publishers have moved on. They too live in a digital first world, many have ceased production of a print publication all together.
The spirit of the law on public notices is to ensure that citizens are aware of the actions their council is taking.
Councils and the LGA have long argued that local government has more effective ways of ensuring citizens get key information whether that be print, digital newsletters or social channels.
Each community is unique and local government PR professionals know best how to reach their citizens. In some areas there may be a great local printed newspaper but in others it is a dynamic commercial digital news presence. In rural areas town and parish networks may deliver and there are large active online communities and for some Council enewsletters may have the best reach.
Take Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP Council) a newly formed unitary council which has had the chance to build its citizen communications from scratch.
Head of Communications at BCP Council, Georgia Turner, says: “Digital is now the prevalent platform. We prefer our residents to hear our news from us. We prioritise this in our daily activities. We value our local daily newspaper but its just part of the mix. Nothing reaches everyone.”
I’m calling on government to stop waste millions of pends of public money by insisting councils place public notices in local newspapers.
Let us prove we can effectively reach our citizens by the best method for that community and ditch public information laws and rules that were built for the 20th Century.