Local councils now employ at least 3,400 comms staff – more than double the total for central government

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At least 3,400 press officers and other communications staff are employed by the UK's local councils, research by Press Gazette has revealed.

Press Gazette used the Freedom of Information Act to ask 435 city, borough and district councils across the UK how many people they employ in their communications departments.

And the 405 councils which answered the FoI in full have revealed they employ 3,443 people in PR, communications and marketing positions between them.

Some 43 of these councils have 20 or more communications positions. Manchester City Council has the most with 77 staff.

This was followed by Leeds City Council on 47, Bristol City Council and Sheffield City Council, both with 43, and Glasgow City Council and Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council in Yorkshire, with 40.

METHODOLOGY

Press Gazette asked 435 city, borough and district councils: "How many staff are employed in your council's communications department?"

Some 405 answered this question in full, with the other 30 either rejecting the request, not yet answering it or claiming that their PR is handled by external organisations and that the FoI is, therefore, not answerable.

Some councils did not provide marketing positions within the communications count, although others did, and Press Gazette would have expected this. Therefore, some of the figures may be underestimations.

There was some inconsistency with the way in which the question was answered, in that some councils provided the number of people it employed to do PR work – as asked – and others provided full-time equivalent numbers. In coming to the final figure, Press Gazette has rounded up all FTE numbers to the next highest full figure. For example, 0.24 FTE = 1 person.

The figures emerge at a time when many journalists, politicians and others are concerned at the rate of decline in the regional press.

According to research by Mediatique for the BBC, 5,000 "front line" journalism jobs were lost across the national and regional press between 2003 and 2013.

In addition to lost jobs, a number of local newspapers have closed altogether. Since December, Trinity Mirror has closed 18 newspapers of varying size. 

Some 49 MPs signed an early day motion, submitted in December, condemning the first seven of these closures, and highlighting the fact that 150 local newspapers have closed since 2008.

Kent Messenger political editor Paul Francis, who has been a political journalist for more than 20 years, suggested many journalists will "balk" at the council PR figures.

He said: "These figures reinforce a perception among many that councils are increasingly keen to ensure that their image and reputation with taxpayers are not damaged or undermined by bad publicity.

"We have long since moved away from councils having information officers to councils employing press and PR people who are one step removed from political spin doctors – there to ensure their political masters are seen in a good light and to limit reputational damage."

He added: "Councils do need to have effective communication strategies, we know that. But many journalists will balk at numbers like this ."

Times chief investigative reporter Andrew Norfolk described the total of 27 communications workers employed by Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council as "pretty staggering". His investigation in 2012 and 2013 revealed widespread failings in the way police and the local authority dealt with the problem  of children being groomed by gangs in the town. 

London has at least 427 press officers and marketing staff working across its local authorities. This is more than four times the entire editorial staff of London's main local newspaper Evening Standard.

The 3,443 total is more than double the 1,500 communications staff employed by the 20 central government departments, as revealed by Press Gazette research last year.

Manchester

The fact Manchester City Council employs 77 communications staff (rounded up from 76.1 FTE) emerges shortly after Trinity Mirror closed down eight free weekly titles in the area.

The council divides its communications workers into two divisions: 'Content and Strategy', which has 37.9 FTE, and 'Operations and Commercial', which has 38.2 FTE.

A Manchester City Council spokesman told Press Gazette that different councils have different structures, meaning like-for-like comparisons are not "particularly enlightening".

Leeds

Leeds City Council employs 20 communications officers, ten communications managers, nine senior communications officers, five communications assistants, two senior communications managers and one head of communications and marketing.

The council was approached for comment yesterday afternoon, but has not responded.

Rotherham

Yorkshire councils for Leeds, Sheffield and Kirklees made up three of the largest six PR operations.

The next largest Yorkshire PR force was Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (below, Reuters), which was also the biggest town council on the list, with 27 communications workers.

This figure has been condemned by Norfolk, who has won numerous awards for his work exposing the Rotherham sex scandal.

He described the figure, for a council of Rotherham's size, as "pretty staggering".

He said: "That's a mini PR empire but in my experience they've not always been particularly eager to answer questions from the press.

"Every local authority needs to be able to communicate with its residents but Rotherham was a place where reputation management became more important than speaking the truth, where the image mattered more than the reality."

He highlighted a part of Louise Casey's February report on the Rotherham scandal, which said that the council had a "culture of suppressing bad news and ignoring difficult issues". She also warned "both today and in the past, Rotherham has at times taken more care of its reputation than it has of its most needy".  

"That's quite an indictment," he said. "Rotherham's communications budget is £713,000 [for 2014/15, Press Gazette research found]. I can think of quite a few girls and young women who'd argue that some of that money would have been more productively spent on frontline support workers and therapeutic support for the many victims of sex-grooming crimes."

A spokeswoman told Press Gazette that it would be "a bit misleading" to suggest the council has 27 PR and communications workers, pointing to the fact that a number of the staff work in 'marketing' positions.

Tower Hamlets

Another PR-heavy region is London, with 427 communications staff working across the 28 local authorities that answered the FoI in full.

One of the largest PR operations in the capital is that of Tower Hamlets, with 26 communications staff. The East London council also reportedly spent £120,000 on PR and legal advice after learning of a BBC Panorama investigation into corruption at the council.

Ted Jeory, a prominent Tower Hamlets blogger and former East London Advertiser deputy editor, described the figures as "astonishing".

He said: "There's been a degree of empire building in the council's comms department for very many years now yet the council's reputation is as low as it's ever been. 

"Much of the PRs' time is devoted to producing East End Life or generating pointless press releases barely anyone reads. In other cases, the department refuses to answer press queries and instead converts them into FoI requests. 

"The council has just seen the back of its last head of comms, who was on nearly £100k. Let's hope they have the nous to recruit someone on a lower salary and who will take the brave decision to cut the department and take a new approach to PR by being honest with journalists."

A council spokesman said: “The figure you are quoting is for the entire communications service, which includes the web team, internal communications, our weekly publication and marketing. In fact we have eight full time equivalent staff dealing with the media, and these staff also have other duties.”

Others

Bristol City Council said that 6.8 of its 43 PR posts are funded by external bodies.

Sheffield City Council said that it has 36.18 full-time communications positions, and that it employs 43 people in these positions.

Glasgow City Council employs 32 full-time staff in its PR department as well as four on part-time contracts and, at the time of asking, five on temporary full-time contracts. 

Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council said it employs 24.25 FTE PR/ media and graphic design employees, 11.1 FTE senior communications officers, four senior managers in the department and one head of service.

NUJ defence

The National Union of Journalists was informed of Press Gazette's intention to run this story after councils had been contatced for comment. 

It described stories highlighting public sector PR numbers as a "quick win for those wanting to make a cheap, ill-informed or just plain antagonistic points".

Phil Morcom, co-chair of the NUJ's public relations and communications council, said in a statement:

On a regular basis we see antagonistic stories about public sector communications. Sometimes it is central government, sometimes bodies such as the NHS or so-called arms-length organisations and more often it is local government. Of course there are faults to be found in just about any area of communications. Whether it is broadcast news, online and print news or commercial or not-for-profit PR, there are errors, inaccuracies and poor judgements to be found. But most journalists and professional communicators seek to do the best they can with the resources they have.
 
Local Authority communications teams promote the work of the council to a wide range of different audiences, including residents, staff, elected members, national government and the wider world. They protect the reputation of the council, and provide counterbalance to inaccurate and partial information where appropriate. They inform citizens and organisations about activities and opportunities, as well as delivering advice and guidance, helping citizens access services and engage with the council.
 
A large council such as Leeds may have a ratio of communications staff of less than 0.5 per cent of the overall staff of the organisation, spending a tiny fraction of the council’s budget. A council communications team typically works out at less than one staff member for every 15,000 citizens, costing less than a penny per week. With increasingly limited resources, reflecting the major cuts to local government, communications staff are expected to handle media relations, promote public health, ensure statutory notifications are delivered, publicise meetings and their results, help schools and nurseries keep in touch with parents in emergencies, deal with local disaster and emergency planning, deal with social media complaints and queries, help councillors explain policy decisions, arrange engagement events, make the most of local facilities such as libraries, parks and roads.
 
Criticising the resources local government spends on communication is a quick win for those wanting to make a cheap, ill-informed or just plain antagonistic points. But it does little to help improve local information for local citizens at a time when broadcast and print media have increasingly have few resources to do so. The NUJ wants good, ethical journalism. We want good communications, professionally delivered by properly paid and resourced journalists. That applies from local papers to local government, photojournalism to publishing and central government to Broadcasting House.

The scale and shape of an organisation’s communication function is determined by the business challenge faced by the organisation. Some organisations have a remit which explicitly involves raising awareness and changing behaviour, for example in public health, and use communications activities to deliver these objectives. Some organisations have a delivery focus and employ communications activity to inform people of services.”

It cannot be assumed that an organisation with a proportionally small communications function has an efficient communications operation.”

Figures

Below are a list of all local authorities which have 20 or more PR positions and, where possible, their budgets. 

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

Kent County Council: 33

Greater London Authority: 32

Nottingham City Council: 32

City of London Corporation: 31

East Sussex County Council: 30

Nottinghamshire County Council: 30

Sunderland City Council: 30

Lancashire County Council: 28

Birmingham City Council: 28

Devon County Council: 28

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council: 27

London Borough of Tower Hamlets: 26

Leicestershire County Council: 26

Surrey County Council: 26

Wiltshire Council: 26

Fife Council: 25

London Borough of Ealing: 25

Hertfordshire County Council: 24

London Borough of Haringey: 24

East Riding of Yorkshire Council: 24

Brighton and Hove City Council: 24

Belfast City Council: 24

Aberdeen City Council: 24

Gloucestershire County Council: 24

Lincolnshire County Council: 23

Stoke-on-Trent City Council: 22

Perth & Kinross Council: 21

Buckinghamshire County Council: 20

Cardiff Council: 20

Medway Council: 20

Somerset County Council: 20

Wakefield City Metropolitan District Council: 20

North Lanarkshire Council: 20

Below are the number of councils with certain PR numbers.

(Number of PRs: number of councils with this number)

19: 7

18: 3

17: 7

16: 4

15: 12

14: 6

13: 10

12: 10

11: 11

10: 14

9: 10

8: 13

7: 17

6: 26

5: 26

4: 46

3: 43

2: 40

1: 38

0: 19

If you would like any more details of your local council's PR team size, please email william.turvill@pressgazette.co.uk. Press Gazette used the FOI Directory to obtain the different council FoI email addresses.

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