“It’s time for Scottish Borders Council to be more direct and open in its dealings with the media and the wider public – we need less spin and more substance.”
That is the message from Councillor Nicholas Watson, leader of the Borders Party, on hearing that the local authority is to revamp its public relations and communications set-up.
While that review is under way, Tracey Graham has been appointed acting communications team manager to oversee SBC’s corporate communication team on an interim basis.
Formerly a media contact in the education department, Ms Graham fills a void left by the departure last year of former head of communications Kathleen Travers and, more recently, by press liason officer Pauline Bristow who has taken up a similar post in East Lothian.
Ms Graham’s elevation, the appointment of Mark Wilson, formerly of Radio Borders, to the communications team and the ongoing review prompted Mr Watson to call for “a new approach to public communication”.
“We need to allow journalists to talk to senior officers instead of filtering everything through a professional communications team and we need to avoid applying spin to public information in the form of ‘key messages’ to journalists,” said Mr Watson. “Above all, we need to be honest and admit to mistakes early.”
Mr Watson claimed the Transforming Children’s Services exercise of 2008 exposed the shortcomings in the council’s communications.
“This was the biggest bit of council work I’ve seen, but if SBC had admitted from the start it was mainly about cutting costs, they’d have had a much easier ride and probably better results,” said Mr Watson.
“Parents and teachers were plainly irritated by the constant claims that it was about improving service.
“The business of the council is not some sort of hush-hush game with government secrets. The council is there to serve Borders people and should keep them informed about developments – good and bad – as they occur.
“People understand that mistakes are made and will be more forgiving if they are owned up to promptly. A more honest approach will mean the good news is believed and given due credit.”
Mr Watson said he hoped the review would see an end of the thrice-yearly SB Connect publication which has a print run of 54,000 and costs £12,000 per edition to produce.
“Most people regard it as SBC blowing its own trumpet, rather than giving out important information,” he added.
On the review, SBC chief executive David Hume said: “The council is committed to open communication and making information available. The changes introduced will help us achieve good standards of openness and access to information. I am very enthusiastic about the changes and hopefully everyone will see the benefits of this.”
Council leader David Parker took issue with Mr Watson’s pejorative assessment of the status quo, but admitted: “I agree we need to improve our communications output and our links with the local media and that is why we are making these changes.”
He told TheSouthern: “I am keen to ensure we provide journalists with the ability to speak with senior staff and have no doubt Tracey Graham will work closely with the Borders media to ensure we provide an efficent service and deal with queries in a way you are happy with.
“I think it is unfair of Councillor Watson to suggest we are not open and honest and indulge in spin. I am always open and honest in my dealings with the media and I’m happy to accept when things go wrong and explain the circumstances. We are not a council which believes in spin.”