Is there a PR tough enough?

Cole Moreton on Hackney's pounds 60,000-a-year test
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The Independent Online
IT IS being billed as the toughest public relations job in Britain - clean up the sleaze-ridden image of Hackney council, seen as one of London's most rotten boroughs.

Executive recruitment agency Price Waterhouse has been hired to find Hackney a new spin doctor to tackle its national reputation for fraud, corruption and inefficiency. "Our relations with the media could hardly be worse," admit advertisements offering the job of assistant chief executive.

Despite being one of the poorest local authorities in the country, Hackney is prepared to pay pounds 60,000 a year to the right candidate. But the ads warn: "You'll need to be tough - very tough."

Whoever gets the job will have to represent an authority whose ruling members are still engaged in a bitter fight between new Labour and old. Their politically correct policies have also been an easy target for tabloid editors eager to prove that the "loony left" survives. Only last month, London's Evening Standard claimed that Hackney was paying staff pounds 2m a year to do nothing, as a result of a seven-year-old ban on compulsory redundancies. Hackney admits that the ban exists.

Hackney is desperately run-down, with unemployment at more than 30 per cent in some parts, but it's not all bad: the council has worked hard to balance its budgets and has transformed several decaying housing estates. Nevertheless, the list of past PR disasters is enough to put any applicant off.

Council press officers would rather forget stories such as the primary school head who turned down tickets for her pupils to see a ballet of Romeo and Juliet in January 1994 because it wasovertly heterosexual. Then there was the housing director who found 4,000 council properties inhabited by people who had no right to be in them. Bernard Crofton investigated recruitment fraud in the personnel department, and was rewarded with the sack last summer for alleged racism. He has since been reinstated.

For a long time, council officers could not even be sure where their next order was coming from. Fighting within the ruling Labour group erupted into a coup last May, when former leader John McCafferty was ousted by his own backbenchers. So much bitterness remains that the party's national executive committee has been asked to intervene.

One frustrated member of staff said officers would work hard to implement a decision made at one council meeting, only to have it overturned at the next. This "complete farce" gave the Government an excuse to intervene in the future of Hackney Downs school, which wasclosed last month.

"That must have been manna from heaven for the tabloids," said the insider, who did not want to be named. "It turned into a soap opera because councillors ignored professional advice." Not surprising then that the news editor of the local Hackney Gazette said there was a "climate of fear" in the press office, with staff hamstrung by bureaucracy and eager to leave.

Tony Elliston thinks he can sort the mess out. A fast-talking money man, he was appointed chief executive last summer to revolutionise the town hall. "Some of our basic services are poor, by any standards," he said. "Undoubtedly there has been fraud in the past, as there has across London."

Mr Elliston was responsible for the ads, one of which describes him as "the first bit of good news" for Hackney. He is also looking for two more like-minded executives. "We're gonna get real about things," said Mr Elliston, who promised a "major cultural change" among council staff. "We need to change our profile, but we need to change the underlying reality. This isn't some touchy-feely thing."

Public relations had not been handled properly in the past, he said. "The culture of the place is about being defensive. People don't accept when things go wrong. We have some flaky things happening here, but if you've done something wrong you have to say so, rather than pretending we're the victims of some awful conspiracy."

He talks about making councillors more aware of the PR implications of their decisions. But members are proving reluctant to take his advice with policies such as the redundancy ban. Some are unhappy with his forthright style: a Labour group meeting on Monday is understood to have rejected his policy document, "Transforming Hackney", because councillors felt they were being bypassed.

Stephen Farish, editor of the trade magazine PR Week, said Hackney would be a tough challenge. "They have got a long way to go to climb out of the pit and establish a more sympathetic image for what they are trying to do."

Public relations specialists should be closer to the decision-making process, said Mr Farish. That lesson had been learnt by British Gas over the past year, battered as it was by the reaction to its chief executive's pay, rising charges and worsening service. Now British Gas has appointed a PR man to its board: John Wybrew, who was director of corporate affairs at Shell UK throughout its own PR disaster with the Brent Spar oil rig last summer.

But perhaps the toughest job in PR at the moment is held by Margaret Stewart, who earns pounds 80,000 with Yorkshire Water. It may be winter, but the company can't find enough water and may have to impose more rationing. "Utilities are having a bad time at the moment," said Mr Farish. "But it's worse for Yorkshire Water, because the practical problem of the drought has become wrapped up in a political argument to do with fat cat salaries and share options. It is very difficult for PR people to separate those two issues in the minds of the media."


Shell UK

Clean-cut company turns villain, thanks to Greenpeace and the Brent Spar oil rig

Head of PR: currently John Wybrew

Estimated pay: pounds 100,000, although he's joining the board of British Gas

British Gas

Cedric Brown's wallet and a rise in bills, complaints and disconnections

Head of PR: to be John Wybrew, with more power than before

Estimated pay: more than pounds 100,000

Yorkshire Water

More fat cats, more share options, leaky pipes and an endless drought

Head of PR: Margaret Stewart

Estimated pay: pounds 80,000

Conservative Central Office

Leadership crisis, disastrous polls, a divided party and a general election looming

Head of PR: Charles Lewington

Estimated pay: at least pounds 70,000

London Borough of Hackney

Poorest council in London, ruling party divided with a tendency to shoot itself in the foot, services run down, area has image problem, regular tabloid target

PR boss: situation vacant

Estimated pay: pounds 60,000

Worst of the rest

Meat and Livestock Commission (calf exports and mad cows), British Energy (nuclear waste) and Group 4 Security (the reasons escape us)