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Birmingham council seeks £82,500 spin doctor to transform communications

Birmingham council seeks £82,500 spin doctor to transform communications

🕔21.Mar 2016

Birmingham city council is prepared to pay up to £82,500 a year for an assistant director capable of rescuing the local authority’s woeful reputation for communications.

Advertisements for the key role went out today, just as the council published a damning review of its external and internal communications service which was described as a “fragmented and demoralised organisation”.

A peer review by the Local Government Association uncovered inter-departmental feuds, poor management and a historic disregard by senior officials for a service which was lacking in leadership and strategic vision.

The need to drastically improve communications is a central theme of the Kerslake Review, which uncovered serious leadership failings at the council and led to the imposition of an independent improvement panel 15 months ago.

The job description for the assistant director communications  says the successful candidate will ensure the council communicates effectively with residents, employees, and stakeholders in Birmingham and across the nation, and adds: “We will look to you to raise our profile and transform perceptions of the council nationally.”

Whoever gets the job will inherit a huge mess.

The highly LGA review found a “reactive, insular culture” within the council’s various communications units which it said was a consequence of “an entrenched corporate culture” rather than specifically the fault of the communications team.

The review found some improvement since the appointment of an interim assistant director for communications last November, who has now left, but noted:

Overall, the communications service and corporate approach to communications is still fragmented. The communications service is generally under-valued and demoralised and until recently, it has lacked leadership and strategic purpose.

The result is a model and way of working which, in our view, will not support the council’s change programme and future ambitions of the council.

The corporate communications team “does not seek out opportunities to learn, train or network”, according to the LGA report.

We were told by members of the team that some staff are generally underqualified, lack vision and do not have the necessary tactical or strategic expertise.

They are rarely represented at regional or national events for local government communicators. A lack of time is cited as the reason for this. It is important for Birmingham’s reputation, particularly if it wants to attract talented communicators from within the sector to work there, that a more outward facing approach is adopted.

The review criticised a “historic lack of leadership” within corporate communications with the workload and productivity of many team members not properly managed.

One of the duties of the corporate team was to produce monthly reports giving a breakdown of activity including media coverage and campaign updates. However, the review was told the reports which take a considerable time to compile were not sent to anyone apart from the previous head of corporate communications.

The LGA review makes difficult reading for Marketing Birmingham, the council’s inward investment agency, which is described as failing to coordinate communications with the council and preferring to go it alone. The report states:

Marketing Birmingham and the council should be two sides of the same coin. However, despite the growing success of the city, it would appear some relationships between communications counterparts at the two organisations have often been difficult.

This was raised frequently with us by people we met during our interviews. There appears to be a level of mistrust on both sides, with many people within the authority of the view that Marketing Birmingham has been seen to try and take disproportionate credit for the city’s regeneration.

Meetings between Marketing Birmingham and the council are described as “sporadic” and often cancelled at the last minute. The council’s communications team is generally bypassed and the review found a MB campaign to highlight 15 reasons to visit Birmingham in 2015 was “apparently placed in the media without any prior notification to the council’s communications team”.

The review found “little corporate ownership or oversight of internal communications” with resources and people spread across directorates and separate internal communications programmes for Future Council and the corporate communications team.

There does not appear to be any central oversight of all the channels being used to ensure consistent messaging or coordination of information going out.

The council’s marketing team often finds itself ignored, according to the review.

This partly stems from a historic lack of faith in the ability of the team to add value. We were told corporate communications has developed a reputation for being the people that ‘just say no’ and are not seen as taking a solution-driven approach.

The review uncovered tension between corporate communications, marketing teams and council departments:

A way of working has developed whereby directorates feel they receive a poor or obstructive service from corporate communications, and the marketing team consider their professional advice to be ignored. The marketing team also spends a considerable amount of time ‘policing’ the council’s corporate brand against attempts by directorates to create their own separate identities.

A supplement in the Guardian newspaper to attract people to work in children’s services, at a cost to the council of £75,000 “was apparently commissioned without any prior knowledge of the corporate communications team”. The review warns:

This kind of disconnect is not healthy or effective. We asked what success measures were in place to determine the effectiveness of the supplement, and were told there had been lots of positive verbal feedback. This is not a scientific way of measuring the success of such a piece of activity.

The review points to a system where press officers work closely with individual cabinet members which results in stories being promoted which serve the interest of portfolio areas rather than wider corporate priorities.

We were told individual cabinet members have the final say on key media messages – often without reference to each other, the Leader or senior management.

Listing its overall findings, the review states:

This is arguably one of the most exciting periods in Birmingham’s recent history. Although it has been a turbulent period for the council, the city’s reputation as a place to visit and do business is growing. National media perceptions of Birmingham are slowly starting to change and there is an increasing recognition that the city is changing.

Birmingham, as the largest local authority in Europe, should be a top draw for UK communications professionals. Its communications service and staff should be able to proactively manage the council’s reputation internally, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

Although the new leader has set out his vision for the city, there is a lack of a clear narrative about the council, its future and the role staff can play in its improvement journey. Worryingly, staff surveys reveal a distinct lack of trust. An overhaul of internal communications is required to help create a more open and transparent culture.

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