Did Tower Hamlets on the telly prove how futile council newspapers are?

Last week, Channel 4’s Undercover Boss programme featured a chap called Kevan Collins, the chief executive of Tower Hamlets Council. The basis of the show is quite simple: Boss goes ‘under cover’ with his employees to find out what life is really like on the shop floor, then makes some changes.

If you’re the boss of, say, Best Western hotels, it’s a pretty simple exercise, largely because most staff on the shop floor – in the hotels around the country – won’t know you from Adam.

In theory, it should be different for council chief executives. Especially council chief executives who continue to divert council funds into a weekly council propaganda newspaper called East End Life, as Collins does.

His council newspaper is delivered weekly to 82,000 homes, with a further 17,000 spreads spread across 475 drop off points around Tower Hamlets. Last year, it sucked £825,000 of external advertising out of the newspaper market, and diverted £625,000 of its own advertising spend into the title too. Indeed, it’s so successful that it managed to generate a surplus of around £300k – something council publications aren’t supposed to do.

In its editorial policy, the main priorities are:

  • To communicate the council’s policies, initiatives and successes
  • To create an understanding of the responsibilities and work of the council and of councillors
  • To enhance residents’ ability to access local services by providing information about services, meetings, advice, in the language or format which they need

Maybe Tower Hamlets Council is different to most of the others in the country and intentionally keeps its senior officers out of the public gaze. Somehow, given Collins allowed himself to appear on a Channel 4 reality show, I doubt it. And a quick search of the Tower Hamlets news section brings up dozens of references to him. Sadly, I can’t see a print version of East End Life online – most councils do, however, do this – to see if his picture is used in print a lot.

As one council pr said on Twitter during the show, it seems remarkable that a man who is the council’s chief executive – a high-profile role generally – can have a bit of a hair cut, put on some fake glasses and before you know it, walk with his staff for an entire week without being rumbled.

Then there was his surprise at how dedicated some of his staff were. The meals-on-wheels lady who made time to sit with the particularly frail pensioners she visited. Or the market manager who spent his spare time dreaming up with to get the market to cash in in the Olympics. Or the rat catcher who not only killed the rats, but made sure they wouldn’t just return.

Again, given that Tower Hamlets publishes a weekly newspaper which, put bluntly, spins out the council’s line to an unsuspecting public, it seems remarkable that the council chief executive is surprised by the dedication of his staff. Looking through the press releases on the council website, the council never stops shouting about how good it, and its staff are.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I come from an anti-council newspaper standpoint, so perhaps I’m being a little cynical here, but it strikes me that if a council chief executive has to use a reality TV programme to learn how good his staff are, and in the process is not recognised by a single one of those staff, then it’s not a weekly newspaper the council needs to get its message across – it’s some bloody good internal communications first.

Or maybe even the council staff don’t take East End Life seriously. Either way, much as Tower Hamlets is trumpeting the programme as a success story for the borough, I can’t help but think it reveals some disturbing truths about how little both staff and managers know about their organisation – an organisatin which believes it is so important it has to tell the public how great it is every week.

Are we really supposed to believe that pumping all that money into East End Life is worth it


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