The Client: The Association of North East Councils

Professionalism, excellence and commitment are the three words that most spring to mind from the feedback we’ve received from those who have participated in, and benefited, from your highly effective approach to media training.

— Hilary Knox, Deputy Chief Executive, Association of North East Councils

The Project Overview

Local government authorities across the North East were facing sweeping changes. Twenty-five councils were set to become twelve; the introduction of Unitary Authorities would affect everyone from the council tax payers to the chief executive officers. Effective communication with all stakeholders was vital.

The North East Improvement and Efficiency Partnership had funding to improve communications in the region. A key component involved council interaction with the media. The Association of North East Councils, representing the region’s (then) twenty-five local authorities, was tasked with commissioning comprehensive media training for all councillors and key spokespersons. A competitive pitch involving media trainers from across the UK resulted in Media Friendly being awarded the contract, based primarily on its local government expertise.

The Challenge

A firm brief was developed with three main threads.

In a time of uncertainty and change, councillors and officers across all local authorities needed to work together to deliver core messages. The Association of North East Councils wanted to improve communication between local councils and their citizens, partners and the media to encourage greater interest, participation and engagement in local government in the North East.

In an arena traditionally associated with top down communications, the challenge was to create an ethos of bottom up communications and an all-round confidence in engaging the media, for councillors and officers to help them communicate achievements and successes – as well as challenges – facing the sector.

There was also a desire to enhance the image, perception and reputation of the local government sector on a national stage and gain recognition of the North East’s success stories with a range of opinion formers and decision makers.

The Solution

In total the project lasted a year delivering more than thirty, full day, empowering media workshops to approximately 180 individuals. Cross council networking was a key element of this programme’s success. Six representatives, each from a different council, attended each training day, which helped develop a new web of communication lines between authorities.

The project clearly needed an understanding of local government ethos. Media Friendly’s Andrew Carapiet, a former BBC local government correspondent, journalist and communications expert, delivered the training throughout, bringing consistency with unrivalled commitment and experience.

Aware of the challenges and vital role faced by elected members who are often first-in-line to talk to the media, the training began with councillors and was followed up with a second round for all senior officers and key spokespersons.

The training was tailor-made. Andrew developed realistic, regional training scenarios based on his extensive research into the North East and the individual councils involved; for example, exercises were based around the Future of the North-East Coast Mainline Railway and the £1billion regeneration plans for Gateshead town centre.

Workshops covered both pro-active PR and crisis media relations across print, television and radio. Topics included:

How media works: what journalists want; identifying news value; meeting deadlines

  • Protocols for handling a media enquiry
  • Interview technique and handling difficult questions
  • Taking control of interviews
  • How to prepare quickly

This was in 2008, a time before social media.

The sessions worked on Media Friendly’s core ‘one-to-one training in a group format’. The emphasis was on the practical, with individual video playback analysis and supportive critical feedback from the group.
The Outcomes

Councillors and officers developed a new understanding in handling the media. They built up their skills to take control of interviews, defuse awkward questions and identify positive newsworthy articles.

The cross-council element of the training naturally developed a network of contacts for councillors and officers across all twenty-five councils in the North East. This fostered joined up thinking and opened up opportunities to work together, both within communications and on other projects

Politicians and officers came away from the training equipped with the skills necessary to deal effectively with a range of press and broadcast media interviews. It helped them articulate credible and authoritative messages about local government, demonstrate leadership, as well as explain, inform and help stimulate interest in local decision –making.

“Given the significant changes – and indeed exciting opportunities – taking place in local government in the North East, I don’t underestimate the importance of the training Media Friendly has provided in helping the sector to step up to the mark in how it communicates and presents itself to the outside world.”

– Hilary Knox, Deputy Chief Executive, Association of North East Councils