By on 14/11/2009 in Blog

Debra Davis, Director of Public Affairs & Communications, comments on the future of the council’s publication for residents, Forward.

debra-davis_002I was incensed, provoked and saddened by The Stirrer's editor's vicious reference to the Forward publication. 

Original Stirrer article:
Messageboard debate:

The publications team in Public Affairs and Communications worked tirelessly to produce an effective council voice consistently meeting all tight deadlines and increasing pressure to improve the look, feel and quality of the Council's fortnightly newspaper.  Everyone had an opinion and there was intense competition for space.  When it was launched 17 years ago, Forward was a pioneer council publication — with the largest circulation of any local authority paper.  

Forward provided news about events, Ward meetings, new services, and how council services affected the lives of people living and working in Birmingham.  It was good value at less than £2 per year per household.

Forward was printed and distributed by the Trinity Mirror Group for years.  According to a recent, free readership survey, those who did read it liked the information and wanted it continued.  Those who missed delivery for various reasons often called the office to get one.  Focus groups conducted in 2007 suggested ways to improve Forward — and the groups reinforced the claim that if you read Forward, it was well received.  Distribution is a large problem — for all councils not just in Birmingham! 

It was put on hold for two reasons: we wanted to pause and find out how people wanted their council news and, importantly, to save money — a saving that includes reasonable consultation fees of £3,000. A worthwhile exercise.

All local authorities have some sort of publication delivered by various methods — monthly, quarterly, every second month.  We all have a legislative duty to inform, consult and engage with residents about our services.
- The council does this on its website
- We have with RSS feeds, blogs and twitter. 
- The Birmingham Bulletin, an e-publication featuring news, jobs and events, is sent to 120,000 subscribers every two weeks. 
- The Business Bulletin goes to 56,000 people and largely features news stories of interest to business.  You can subscribe here.
– 30,000 copies of Jobs4U are published every second week and distributed to Neighbourhood Offices, libraries and Job Centre Plus and is available online.

Several of our council service areas are entering into the foray of social media and networking sites to get more information to more people and to engage with the online community — including

During Forward's recess, we produced Summer Times which featured activities in Birmingham in July/August/September and we have just published a Special Edition of Forward which highlights Christmas festivities and Council stories relating to our priorities. Look for the special edition coming through your letterbox this week. 

Recent LG Communications research explored questions about Council publications. Questions remain, in our case, about a magazine format, tabloid or newspaper.  Frequency, targeted or mass distribution, or subscription?  Forward online?  Constituency focused, corporate or a combination?  Should we expand a council publication to include content from other agencies and partners such as the police, fire service, NHS, PCTs, Be Birmingham or Business Link? Discuss.

An affordable consultation with councillors, partners and other stakeholders will help the Council decide on what will be the most cost-effective, value for money, appropriate platform to communicate with tax payers.  It is not my decision, though it will be a recommendation from officers who look at the finances, what people tell us and what will resonate with audiences.  There will be options. 

As important as what channel is used to communicate is how we say it, who says it and what we say.  As for the Stirrer article, I am really uneasy about the tone and nature and unending criticism about Council communications and how the city promotes itself.  There is a lot of goodwill, effort and collective, collaborative working but we never seem to lift ourselves out of this deepening disquiet.

Communications is the first budget line that will be attacked in tough economic times – at a time when it has never been so important than to get the right messages out in a timely way with the style and standards that can compete with the private sector.  And this comes at a time when we are reviewing and restructuring communications corporately and in directorates where a large number of communications officers sit. 

Birmingham is a great city.  But I have never lived in a city that seems to revel in the art of putting itself down quite like Birmingham.  We need swaggering instead of sniggering.  We need to use occasions like the UK City of Culture Bid to collectively boast about the cultural offering in this city and we need to applaud the Saxon Hoard, the EDF Marathon and many other great events and activities in all corners of Birmingham.  Not many other cities in the world can boast performances by Beyonce, Andrea Bochelli and Muse in less than a week.

My comments in The Stirrer were designed to stimulate online reaction from the wide community of bloggers. Some of the comments are helpful and have been taken on board.  At the same time, though, if bloggers would like to direct their thoughts and questions to me or my communications team we would be delighted to address them personally and privately.  If you don't receive your copy of the Special Edition of Forward, let me know and I will send one to you!

Forward is not the story. The story is about the great work done by the Chief Executive, Stephen Hughes, who is leading an ambitious business transformation programme that will help to protect council services — in the midst of a recession that will impact greatly on public spending. The story is two major awards for the Housing Directorate led by Cllr John Lines and Elaine Elkington, Strategic Director. The story is about Deputy Leader Paul Tilsley's extremely successful agenda and the series of events, such as 'Hello Digital', that puts Birmingham in the lead on the digital agenda.  And the story is the Leader of the Council Mike Whitby who is an incredible champion for Birmingham business in the Midlands, the UK and internationally. Selling the “Birmingham brand” is an essential part of what we all do.

The German Ambassador and Lord Mayor opened the glorious Christmas Frankfurt Market on Thursday and today there is a stellar line up of celebrities at the Christmas Lights Switch On at Millennium Point.  In spite of the recession, there are still many things to celebrate in the coming season of goodwill!

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There Are 3 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Jon Bounds says:

    I struggled to understand this without context — it neither quotes or links to the comment that has caused it to be written.

    In response to this:
    “At the same time, though, if bloggers would like to direct their thoughts and questions to me or my communications team we would be delighted to address them personally and privately.”
    I’d say that ‘bloggers’ generally like to discuss things — particularily those in the public interest — in public on the web where people can all contribute together. This site is a step towards that.

    • geoffc says:

      Fair point Jon, Debra agrees she should have added links to the original Stirrer article and ensuing debate. They have now been added.
      We see the debate as a positive thing and would welcome any thoughts about the future of Forward or the wider communications issues.

  2. Firstly, I agree with Jon, bloggers are generally part of a community that puts openness at the forefront of what they do. If you want to engage with us, do it publically.

    Secondly, I’m greatly concerned that you consider selling Cllrs Lines, Tilsley and Whitby as part of the ‘Birmingham Brand.’ They are politicians and pushing them this much looks like crossing a very serious line.