There was an interesting story in the UK Press Gazette recently on the number of people employed by local councils in their Public Relations departments. FOI requests were put in to the 435 local councils in the UK asking about the matter. Of the 405 replies a total of 3,443 employees were identified. It is now quite routine for a town to have more people working as council PROs than as journalists on local newspapers. That is a quite staggering state of affairs.
Often the key message the Council spin doctors will be pushing is how devastating the cuts in grant from central Government have been. Often cuts in services will be explained due to their being “no alternative”.
Naturally enough, the worst offenders are Labour councils. Here is the list of the ten councils with the highest number employed on PR:
Manchester City Council: 77
Leeds City Council: 47
Bristol City Council: 43
Sheffield City Council: 43
Glasgow City Council: 41
Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council: 41
Essex County Council: 39
City of Edinburgh: 37
London Borough of Camden: 34
London Borough of Hackney: 34
Essex is Conservative controlled. Edinburgh is a Lab/SNP coalition. Bristol has an independent Mayor. The rest are run by Labour.
By contrast there are several district councils that don’t employ any press officers. That does not follow that journalists would not be able to get their questions answered. There could be an arrangement where if there were queries on points of information then the various Heads of Department could be authorised to answer them. If a comment was wanted then, quite properly, that could be a matter for the council leader.
Size matters, of course. Birmingham City Council employs 28 press officers and other PR staff – which is outrageous – but perhaps it might be justified in employing one or two. For a small district council it is a different matter. There will also be questions of definition. It is good value for money for councils to have a website with full and up to date information – sometimes that work is combined with the different role of press officer.
But even making allowances the variation in the figures is marked. The UK Press Gazette kindly provided me with the full list of responses. If we consider the 32 London boroughs there is some variety in terms of population and council budgets but that cannot account for the full explanation for the number of PR officers they employ. Some have a very high number – Camden and Hackney with 34 each are noted above. There is Tower Hamlets with 26 (not that they manage to achieve a good reputation for that authority), Ealing with 25, Haringey with 24. By contrast Wandsworth has three. Bexley and Bromley each employ four. Even Labour-run Greenwich manages to get by with five.
Then there is the comparison among county councils. They have broadly the same responsibilities. So why does Nottinghamshire County Council need 30 PR officers when Cambridgeshire County Council gets by with five?
It was a good effort by the UK Press Gazette in uncovering all this information. But it should be disclosed on every council website automatically. I would like to see the Transparency Code requirements include this.