Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Proposals on council publicity are to protect local papers from competition not to save costs - the TPA (and Eric) are wrong


Much though I am a fan of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and recognise that there are clear needs for restraint over public spending, the organisation is wrong about Local Council marketing – what they prefer, wrongly, to call ‘publicity’. Here’s their line:

Councils are supposed to provide services for the taxpayers who pay for them; it should go without saying that this does not include self promotion.

The TPA – like Eric Pickles, it seems – seem obsessed with the minutiae of spending rather than its purpose. And, while this isn’t the substance of my defence of local council marketing, it’s hard to find fault in the logic of Margaret Eaton’s argument:

‘If the Department for Communities and Local Government was truly committed to localism it would not be introducing draconian rules dictating to councils how often they are allow to share information with residents.’

For central government this attack on communicating with residents represents two things – an easy headline (ironic given the issue being marketing) and the chance to deliver on a stupid promise made in opposition. I wrote back then about the issue:

Now local councils have realised that communicating with the public - a duty of theirs - is not well served by relying on local papers that two-thirds or more of local residents don't read. These Councils produce their own newspapers - Bradford does this with the (multi-award winning) Community Pride.

The rules proposed by the government represent a big win for poor quality local papers and do not in any respect represent value for money to local councils. There is no doubt that producing your own information newspaper and taking advertising to ameliorate the cost is a far more cost-efficient vehicle than buying space in local newspapers. Yet that is what the government proposes:

Local authorities should not publish or incur expenditure in commissioning in hard copy or on any website, newsletters, newssheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content. Where local authorities do commission or publish newsletters, newssheets or similar communications, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly, apart from parish councils which should not issue them more frequently than monthly. Such communications should not include material other than information for the public about the business, services and amenities of the council or other local service providers.

Nobody is suggesting that local councils turn themselves into newspaper publishers – and I don’t know of any council that does. The real thrust of this requirement is to protect local newspapers – many of which have come to rely on council advertising.

The revised Publicity Code contains specific guidance on the frequency, content and appearance of local authority newsletters, newssheets or similar publications. The Department considers that the Publicity Code, rather than competition legislation, is the right vehicle for imposing tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers because the issues involved go beyond the purely economic considerations of, for instance, council newspapers diverting revenue from paid advertising away from local newspapers.

The proposed Code of Practice demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of marketing, presents a wholly unwarranted attack on local authority communications and wholly fails to realise the limitations of local newspapers as means of communicating with all residents in a given authority area.

I find it odd that the TPA focuses on what – in most cases – is a more efficient use of limited budgets for marketing rather than on the real waste in local government communications. Councils employ armies of press officers, in house lobbyists and policy advisors whose many purpose is to ensure that the press coverage for the authority is good (and features prominently the leaders and his or her pals). Local council newspapers are an efficient, low cost and flexible means of reaching local communities – something local papers used to do but really don’t do anymore (for example the Bradford Telegraph & Argus typically reaches around 10% of the City’s population – the most recent circulation data is 28,839 in a District with an adult population of nearly 500,000).

Given this fact – even factoring in weekly papers covering Keighley & Ilkley – it seems that the need to reach the whole population is simply not going to be served by our local newspaper group (and remember it's a monopoly as all these papers are owned by newsquest). Yet – ostensibly to protect such papers – the Council is constrained in the number of occasions on which it can speak to the whole population.

In truth this code of practice is poorly structured, ill-thought out and creates a straw man by blaming local councils for the near terminal decline of daily local papers. Quite simply it is wrong, the TPA is wrong to support it and Margaret Eaton (and the LGA) is right to oppose it.


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