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Spread the word

Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 2012

Local government communications is changing, as the impact of the local press declines, social media grows, and budget cuts bite. PSE speaks to Jenny Tozer, assistant director of communications at Derbyshire County Council.

Derbyshire County Council won the Local Authority of the Year category in 2011’s Good Communication Awards – while also walking off with the awards for council publication of the year for its b-line youth magazine and contact centre of the year.

Its PR team clearly knows a thing or two about keeping people informed, but the austerity climate has had a direct effect on many communications departments around the country, as well as giving them a more difficult job in many cases as they try to explain to residents the need to close or cut back valued services.

‘It’s the Chronicle / Post / Echo / Telegraph…’

There have also been longer-term shifts in the way they communicate, with falling circulations at almost all local papers, inquiries from whom have always been the breadand- butter of external communications for most local authority press teams. As detailed on page 51, however, the rise in social media has opened up new opportunities to interact directly with the public, counter negative stories and get people interested in events and consultations.

As Derbyshire’s assistant communications director Jenny Tozer explains, however, there remain plenty of people caught out by the digital divide, unable or unwilling to use the internet or social media.

She explained: “Obviously things have changed, significantly, as social media wasn’t so much at the forefront even five years ago, but we’ve obviously still got to continue with traditional media and traditional ways of communicating, which means print. There are still a lot of people who don’t have access to a computer in Derbyshire; particularly people in the groups we’re trying to target.

“We would always argue that we need a business case for doing the things we do. Where we run major campaigns or major communications, there will always be a good business reason behind that.”


A common concern for communications and marketing professionals in local gov-ernment is the common disconnect people feel between valued council services and the corporate brand of the local authority.

Tozer said: “We’re keen to make sure people know where they need to go to get the services they need. That’s what we’re about. Of course, we’re proud of the council brand and it’s a trusted brand, however, for most people out there, they’re not really bothered who delivers the service as long as they can get it – and know who to complain to as well at some points! But we have a strong, trusted brand that people recognise.”

She said the reasons the team has won awards are simple: “We’ve got a solid track record in good communications, with a strong business case, that’s well-executed, well-written and well-delivered, and importantly has achieved the results we want and plan for.”

Council publications

Many councils choose to get the message out using their own publications – from quarterlies, as with Derbyshire, to full-on newspapers with their own entertainment and sports sections. These newspapers, condemned by ministers as ‘town hall pravdas’ for their understandably noncritical reporting of council activities, are now subject to a Publicity Code stating they should not be published in direct competition with the local press, due to fears that driving local papers out of business will mean local democracy and scrutiny suffers. Under the code, only news about local services should be included, although ministers have raised some concerns that some councils are breaching the code in their publications, especially some London boroughs.

The situation is different in Derbyshire, Tozer said: “We have a quarterly publication and it’s a very important way of communicating with our residents. But we don’t take advertising in ours, so we’re not in direct competition with the local media and would never want to be. It’s a completely different type of publication. But, there is a very strong business case for us producing one, because it’s the most cost effective way of us reaching 350,000 households.”

The costs have been worked out, with each page in the publication costing £2,200 to produce and deliver, compared to a cost of around £10,000 for a page of advertising that would cover the whole county.

Residents’ surveys show that the council publication – newsprint, rather than a glossy magazine – tends to be the top or second highest source of information for residents about council information.

Tozer said: “It is cost-effective. It probably does actually go to more people, because it goes through their letterbox and is a powerful way of communicating.

“The results of residents’ surveys show that the better people are informed about the council and its activities, the more likely they are to feel better about and be more positive about the council as a body.”

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