Yesterday saw yet another argument between the DCLG Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, and the public sector community over facts. This time it was over how much local government pensions cost the taxpayer, and many figures were bandied about.
It isn’t this particular debate that worries me, what bothers me is the increasing abandonment of getting your facts right before going public with a viewpoint. It seems that the truth is playing second fiddle to the sentiment far more than it should do, which is never.
Local government and the public sector have taken a battering in the media in recent years, especially during the past twelve months. Some of it has been deserved, but much of it has been backed up with misinformation used to try and prove a point. At a time when resources are scarce and communications as a discipline is viewed with suspicion, it may be tempting to join in the mudslinging. If you can’t beat them, join them.
But this would be a mistake. Evidence based PR has never been more important, we not only have to be effective, we must also be able to prove it. Spin is supposed to be old hat, but of late it has been making a comeback. Never more so than in the recent literature in the run-up to the vote on AV, which was the most depressing campaign I can remember.
The ‘Yes’ campaign promised nirvana, a guarantee to make MPs work harder (eh?), and a general sense of wellbeing for us all, evoking the spirit of Woodstock. The ‘No’ campaign claimed a change in the way we vote would cost the equivalent of the national debt of Greece, the almost certain threat of Nick Griffin being our next Prime Minister, and portrayed Nick Clegg as a cross between the devil and the childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I may be exaggerating, but there was little or no debate on the issue itself.
The reputation of Councils has dipped in recent months, possibly as a result of the attacks I’ve referred to, and it wasn’t that high in the first place. So we need to redouble our efforts to not only get the message right, but to make sure that we reach the people who need the information most. Against a background of misinformation, we should not forget that in the current climate many people need local government services more than they’ve needed them before. We should shout louder than ever about how they can access them.