Pravda in the council
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles is not a particularly subtle communicator. Last year, when announcing that he wanted to see an end to practice of local councils producing and distributing their own local newspapers he described his argument as follows:
Councils should spend less time and money on weekly town hall Pravdas that end up in the bin, and focus more on front-line services like providing regular rubbish collections. The previous Government’s weakening of the rules on town hall publicity not only wasted taxpayers’ money and added to the wave of junk mail, but has undermined a free press.
This week the DCLG Select Committee in the House of Commons rejected Mr Pickles’ proposals and stated that he needed more evidence that the actions of local councils was undermining local newspapers before he could regulate them.
In many ways this was a victory for localism over the centralising tendency of the DCLG when something irritates them and should be welcomed.
However, in many ways the debate over council newspapers is like that over free speech. Just because councils have the right to do something does not mean they should abuse that right.
Council run newspapers are, in my experience, a dreadful thing and here is why:
1) An amended version of the ‘money’ argument
One of the key arguments against local council papers is that they suck in local advertising money that would otherwise go to commercial publications. David Higgerson estimates the amount of money redirected from the commercial to the council sector is £4 million.
However, the wider issue is that of the internal money that is redirected to this publication. Councils are often under pressure to illustrate that their papers do not actually cost the taxpayer money.
A lot of councils will run their free sheet as an internal business unit and therefore charge other teams for their services. And as external advertising only makes up about 45% (using Higgerson’s figures) of their income the other 55% has to come from within the council. Those who work for the internal newspaper therefore squeeze as much advertising revenue as they can from the other departments within the council.
Often , the costs of ‘advertising’ in the council free sheet is more expensive than that which would be charged for smaller circulation local papers. It also becomes a default option when putting together a communications plan which is not always the best solution.
Obviously, all free sheets are different but the above scenario is not that unusual.
2) The free sheets ARE propaganda
There is a very fine line between fact and comment and in my experience councils never seek to balance on it. If you are going to present a story without the option of an alternative opinion then the journalists who work on the paper have to be very careful that they only give information. However, as soon as the attached quote from the councillor says ‘we are very proud that we are able to bring xxx to the people of xxx’ they have crossed over the line into comment. Even when the councils are being especially careful the back story is always that of a positive story; thus illustrating that the council are good, and by definition the politicians too. Local papers are more than capable of reprinting our press releases if they are worth it; we don’t apply such rigorous tests.
3) Free sheets distort our communications activities
If you have a free sheet it becomes a comfort blanket. Despite the fact that many people do exactly what Mr Pickles says (i.e. put them in the bin with the pizza flyers) if your message is going out to the whole local population without a counter view then why bother with any other communications? This is a very bad thing indeed. Firstly, there is no effort made to get the message right. The free sheet is not a critical eye and will let any positive message in. In the commercial world there are things we would never dream of putting out there for fear they are SO easy to criticise. Plus, this leads to a laziness in the way we communicate with a changing population.
If we only had local commercial papers to make use of then local authorities would do a better job of working out how best to reach their population, mixing papers with radio, meetings, the internet, social media, flyers, posters and every other conceivable media to get the message out.
I do not work in communications (you may have guessed) so won’t claim to be an expert but on this issue myself and Mr Pickles are in total agreement.