We like the press office, we don’t like the press office, we like it, we don’t like it…

WHEN the topic of budget-setting comes up at the council each year, there is a familiar cry from the opposition benches at the Town Hall, whichever party is occupying them: Cut back on the press department. Of course, when in power, there is more often than not a little backtracking and councillors in charge remember how many calls they actually make for PR advice each week…  I even heard that on some occasions press officers might even draft letters and opinion pieces that appear under the names of our busy councillors.

The Conservatives, however, seem ready to shake things up. Two weeks ago, former leader and Swiss Cottage councillor Andrew Marshall went over the press office’s collective head with tweets, blogs and email posts which ignored a strict embargo on the press release that the UCL Academy school’s opening will be delayed. It scooped the embargo by only a couple of hours but in doing so undermined how the press office was trying to manage the situation with local journalists.

Then, last week, the Tories were quick to point out that the press office was, to their mind, sleeping when a boring machine (boring, as in drilling) fell over in Adelaide Road, Chalk Farm. Sleeping, that is, in comparison with on the spot roving reporter Councillor Jonny Bucknell. In an email to followers, he said afterwards: I am surprised that the Camden press department had not put out a release on this since it is quite a major incident. As usual your Belsize Councillors hear about it in minutes.” Now, no press office or newspaper can hope to be as quick as Jonny Bucknell,  the guy knows everything about his neighbourhood. You see him on his bike, his moped, in his G-Whiz car – he’s everywhere. But his comment is double-edged. By arguing the council’s press office should have swiftly put out a statement, there is a clear suggestion that there is a valid function to a department which is always the first target for budget amendments. If the Tories, or anybody else running through the accounts, wants the council to provide a news service as superfast as Jonny Bucknell (and for all parts of Camden, not just Chalk Farm), then somebody is going to have to pay for it.

2 Comments on We like the press office, we don’t like the press office, we like it, we don’t like it…

  1. What do you think Richard? I agree with you that the call to cut down on the comms department/press office always comes from the opposition, but would be really interested to hear your views as an experienced local journalist. You must have had lots of dealings with council press people over the years, and I’m sure have some insight. Do you think they earn their money? are there too many of them or too few? Do they improve local decision making and democracy or worsen it? just asking…

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  2. Just to say, I didn’t mean to break the embargo as some great act of rebellion. I could see there was a midnight embargo. I knew I wouldn’t have much time in the morning and I wanted to make sure we as the Swiss Cottage team were prompt in talking about a key development in our ward (and beyond). Maybe I was naive but I didn’t think me blogging and tweeting it at 2235 or so would get noticed. But Richard automatically gets my blogposts, so he spotted it and complained, so I apologised and took back down the blog and tweet until the morning.

    It’s not easy being in the comms function in local government. There is a genuine role in handling a wide variety of media interest, including much that the public or indeed local journalists dont always see.

    I do suspect that the days of embargoes are going to be numbered.

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