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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Spinning the headlines

The Wales on Sunday have made a big thing today about the cost to the Assembly, local Councils and quangos of running a modern day public relations operation. They have estimated that £4 million of public money is being spent on such activity around Wales, employing former journalists (including some who worked for the Western Mail) and PR professionals to put a gloss on the way that Wales is being run.

The newspaper also lists what £4 million could buy in terms of medical treatment, police officers etc. It is an easy hit and entirely superficial in its simplicity. The contributions from Ieuan Wyn Jones of Plaid Cymru and Nick Bourne from the Tories, fall into the same category, although at least the Conservative leader is prepared to admit that his group employ their own press officer from public funds before deriding the Assembly Government for doing the same, albeit on a bigger scale. For the record the Plaid Cymru and Welsh Liberal Democrats groups also employ media officers, paid for out of Assembly allowances.

I do not doubt that this is becoming a growth industry and could be scaled down. However, it should be acknowledged that in the face of a 24 hour rolling news agenda the employment of such professionals is becoming a necessity for all public bodies. I am sure that the Wales on Sunday would be the first to complain if, having lodged a request for information, they were told that the Assembly or a local Council were unable to respond because all their employees were busy providing services for local people and they no longer employed people who deal with such queries.

Equally, any body who delivers services needs to communicate with its customers. They do this through a variety of methods, including press releases, briefings for the media, dedicated newspapers delivered door to door, leaflets, posters and via the internet to name but a few. Staff must be employed to ensure that this activity is effective and cost-efficient. This is not just about spin, it is about public information and at times, public safety. It should also be noted that a significant amount of the copy used by all media outlets comes from these PR departments. This really is biting the hand that feeds them.

It is easy to criticise and I am not going to detract from the Wales on Sunday's exclusive, however given the complex world we live in this newspaper is doing nobody any favours by this sort of sensationalism. A more measured response acknowledging the realities and questioning the output and value for money of these PR professionals would have earned more respect.
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