'Taxpayer-funded propagandists' or 'vital frontline staff'? Press Gazette council PR investigation stirs debate

Press Gazette’s revelation that more than 3,400 people are employed in local government communications has prompted a PR trade body and others to defend the industry.

But some journalists, and the Tax Payers' Alliance, have condemned the figures describing them as "absolutely scandalous" and a "waste of money".

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance, quoted in The Times's follow-up of the story, said: “It looks like blatant hypocrisy for council officials to complain about necessary savings whilst they keep so many PR staff on the books.

“Whoever is in government after the election must crack down on this army of taxpayer-funded propagandists. Hard-pressed taxpayers expect their money to go towards frontline services, not spin doctors.”

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 3,453 people in PR, communications and marketing positions between them.

Some 44 of these councils have 20 or more communications positions. Manchester City Council has the most with 77 staff.

The full story can be read here.

The CIPR responded by saying that the TPA – and Press Gazette – had “shown a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and role of a modern public relations team”.

CIPR president Sarah Pinch said: "It should be of no surprise to anyone that such numbers of public relations and communications staff are employed by city and local councils, who provide frontline services to over 60 million people.

"Each and every publicly funded authority has a responsibility to deliver a first class service to their communities. It is vital that residents understand what services are available to them and how to access them. In order to deliver this effectively, engaging in two-way open, honest and transparent dialogue must be managed through the expertise of professional and accountable public relations practitioners.
 
"The Press Gazette and Taxpayers' Alliance have shown a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and role of a modern public relations team. The year is 2015, not 1985 – and PR simply does not only exist to serve the beck and call of the national, local and regional press…
 
"PR has been at the core of consulting with communities in negotiating how vastly reduced local government budgets are spent, communicating these challenges internally with staff, and externally with the public they serve. On top of this, to save money across other departments, access to services is also moving online – all of this is managed by an effective communications team.
 
"The work that they undertake is frontline. It is not a nice to have, but a vital and central part of the role of local government."
 
Some Press Gazette readers were disappointed to see the National Union of Journalists defend the total, in a statement from the union's Public Relations and Communications Council co-chair Phil Morcom.
 
He said: “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.”

One commenter accused the NUJ of “attacking a fine story about how many PRs there are in local government and how few journalists there are left in local newspapers”. They asked: “Am I dreaming?”

Another suggested the union is “more politically-aligned” to public sector communications workers “being crammed into our town halls than they ever have been with newspaper journalists”.

Others, primarily public relations and communications workers, agreed with the NUJ and CIPR.

Meanwhile, a number of journalists were critical of the number of people working in communications for local councils.

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