This week’s email interview is with Stephen Parkinson – he’s been Head of Communications at Preston City Council since 2003. Stephen has improved internal and external communications at Preston culminating in winning three gold awards from LG Communications in 2007 including best A-Z, best environmental campaign and best district communications. He is married with three children and enjoys running, squash, photography as well as being an avid supporter of Preston North End.
What’s your current job and what does it involve? What are you responsible for?
Head of Communications – responsible for internal communications, external communications, media relations, website and new media, consultation, and supporting corporate projects and initiatives.
How did you end up doing this role?
By accident really. I started my local government career in 1988 at Lancaster City Council as a YTS trainee working in the general office earning £25 a week! I then managed to get a full time position in committee administration and the council supported me with my studies enabling me to gain an ONC, HNC and professional qualifications in administration. I worked my way up in administration and then in 1996 the council set up a dedicated Policy and Public Relations Section. I was asked to help set up the section and I’ve never looked back, joining Preston in 2000 as Public Relations Officer and becoming Head of Communications in 2003. Administration has been a really good background for me – working with elected members in developing a political and PR antennae as well as having good organisational and writing skills.
Can you tell us about a project or campaign you’ve worked on that you’re really proud of?
Winning three gold awards in 2007 from LG Communications, including best district communications is certainly a highlight but the stand out project is Preston’s successful bid for city status in 2002. The Chief Executive asked me to lead project and it was wonderful experience. We worked hard on getting the local community, businesses, key partners and the local media right behind the bid and that was one of our biggest strengths. Looking back, it would be different now as new media and on-line would play a much bigger role in the bid than it did then. Preston was a 25-1 shot to get city status, but we knew we had a strong, well supported bid and we were all absolutely thrilled when we won.
Tell us a bit more about Preston – what are the council’s priorities for the area?
Preston is a great, vibrant, young city. We have a wonderful community spirit and people from all different communities get on well together. This is down in part to the University of Central Lancashire (sixth largest in the UK) which really helps with the vibrancy of the city. The council’s main focus is on regeneration. We have plans for a £700m city centre regeneration which would see Preston achieve its vision to offer an alternative city experience to Manchester and Liverpool.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing local government communications today?
Getting heard, or getting the message over. The proliferation of communication channels means it is harder for local government to get its message over. People now have more choice over what they watch, listen and read and if you are not on their playlist then you will be anonymous. As communicators we have to use all forms of communication to reach out to people and also make what we say more relevant to people’s lives. There is a lot of interest out their – the growth in grass roots activity and communications including residents and campaign groups, community blogs, and discussion forums means we have to reach out in new ways. The days of relying on press releases and community magazines are over. Whilst this is a challenge, it is also a real opportunity for councils to engage with people, address issues of concern in the community and work together.
How is the new comprehensive area assessment (CAA) process changing the way your council communicates?
It means we are more focused on outcomes, customer/community intelligence and public satisfaction. This is a good thing – especially for communicators whose skills are needed to help councils successfully engage and have two way communications with citizens. With the advent of new media too, it’s an exciting time to work in local government communications and as local government communicators, we are well placed to work with members, senior officers and the community to harness the potential of this change and improve the work, relevance and standing of local government within our communities.
How is the growth of social media affecting your job/team?
Massively. We are using new media to communicate with people directly. It’s a really powerfully tool and presents a whole host of new opportunities. The sheer speed of communications in using Twitter and Facebook is amazing and gives us a platform to have a two way dialogue with people interested in Preston and the city as a whole. We’ve recently updated our website www.preston.gov.uk to include blogs, discussion forums, even the ability to upload photos like Flickr which is popular too. New media and social networking is a bit like having new tools in the toolbox – only they are “power tools” and really help you to do your job. It’s great for members too, to be able to connect with people and as local government communicators we are well placed to help the make the most of this great new technology. The two way nature of social networking is great too as it allows you to engage and get feedback from people – helping you to improve what you do. And, using social networking like Twitter of Facebook is free! Although to be effective, you do need to commit time resources to it.
What advice would you have for a young PR professional wanting to work in public sector communications?
Go for it. It’s a varied and interesting career and you’ll meet all sorts of people. Every day is different, bringing its own unique challenges. You need to be savvy to the sometimes conflicting needs and demands of members, the council, the community and the media! All this keeps you interested and with new media there has never been a better time to join public sector communications and make a difference to the communities we serve.