LIVERPOOL City Council has hired a consultant spin doctor who charges local authorities up to £1,000 a day for his services.
PR guru Mark Fletcher-Brown is working three days a week for Mayor Joe Anderson - after the council haggled a discount on his normal daily rate. That brings the cost down to £650 a day.
Last night a spokesman for the cash-strapped council admitted he did not know if the figure included vat and expenses - which Fletcher-Brown normally adds on to his hefty base day rate of £850.
But even without those add-ons, the figure is commensurate with a full time salaried post of £169,000.
Fletcher-Brown's 75-day contract, three days a week, will keep him commuting from the Midlands to Mayor Joe's office for 25 weeks and will earn him, at the very minimum, £48,750.
Lib Dem group leader Cllr Richard Kemp, who has already challenged the need for an expensive PR chief at the Town Hall, has asked Chief Executive Ged Fitzgerald for full details of the package agreed with Fletcher-Brown.
Last night, following questions from Liverpool Confidential, the city council issued a statement defending the hiring of an outside communications expert to work with the Mayor.
Said Cllr Kemp: “At a time when we are facing savage cuts, and the closure of libraries and other facilities, it is questionable whether we need a highly paid media executive. We already have a well established media centre at the council and in addition there are press officers servicing other bodies and agencies linked to the council, such as Liverpool Vision.
“The Liverpool Enterprise Partnership also has a press team. In some cases there is an obvious overlap in what is being promoted.
“In the recent budget process I challenged the need for a permanent head of communications, because I considered the overall cost of that post – around £140,000 a year – was too high.”
The post of head of communications has remained vacant since the controversial departure, several years ago, of journalist Matt Finnegan. That followed the public spat between former chief executive Sir David Henshaw and ex-leader of the council Lord Mike Storey.
Matt FinneganJust a few weeks ago, Finnegan figured in a front page splash in the Manchester Evening News over his role as consultant spin doctor to the elected mayor of Salford. An opposition councillor challenged the fees being paid to Finnegan, saying it equated to an annual salary of £65,000 a year.
But that is dwarfed by Mark Fletcher-Brown's equated annual figure.
The council says the communications consultant has worked with over 75 public sector organisations.
Fletcher-Brown’s appointment comes after the council failed in efforts to recruit to its head of communications role.
Liverpool City Council’s Chief Executive Ged Fitzgerald said: “We’re an organisation in a city facing massive change.
“We’ve lost more than 1,900 staff in the past two years and we’re facing further deep cuts. When services are changing, there is a need for more communications not less.
“We need communications expertise to help us to engage both staff and service users who will be affected by these changes.
“We advertised nationally for this post but failed to find anyone with the level of expertise and the calibre needed to carry out this work.
Uncle Joe“Mark has worked with many of the top local authorities, housing associations, health organisations, national agencies and a number of major private sector companies. He is already having a massive impact in our organisation.
“We have also asked him to review the way we run our communications service to make sure it’s able to give the council the support it will need in the coming years. He reduced his fees significantly to work here so the overall cost of his services will be no more than the cost of a head of communications had we appointed to the post.”
Fletcher-Brown added: “The possibility of working with Liverpool with both Ged Fitzgerald and the Mayor was too good to resist. When the interview came up I jumped at the chance. I was pleased to be awarded this brief. I will work hard to make it a success.”
Fletcher-Brown is a former head of PR for Coventry City Council. He has written extensively about communication and change and has lectured at universities in the UK and in Europe and he blogs for the Huffington Post.
Enter the 'commsmeister'
Mark Fletcher-BrownMayor Joe Anderson's new PR guru, Mark Fletcher-Brown, a self-styled “commsmeister”, has worked for councils and local government across the country, writes Nick Howard.
He is the founder of consultancy firm Reputation, has published a handbook for local authorities called Leading Communication, and writes a column for news website The Huffington Post.
Fletcher Brown’s core argument is that councils and other local bodies don’t communicate correctly – they say the wrong things, mix messages, talk when they shouldn’t and vice versa. The solution of course is that communication experts like himself should bridge the gap between councils and citizens, while being paid handsomely to do so.
He explores these themes in a whole range of articles in The Huffington Post, specialist local authority magazine the MJ and on Reputation’s own blog. They all have titles like ‘Mind the Gap – is your leadership out of synch with expectations?’; ‘Christmas Parties and Other Reputation Risks”, and ‘One Tweet from Disaster”.
A highlight is on Reputation’s own blog, with the hilarious ‘What would happen if tomorrow local authorities agreed to spend no money at all on communication and public relations?’ (spoiler: it would be terrible for everyone). Fletcher-Brown muses that a crisis is such a good way to prove your value to the employer that it would almost be worth a newly appointed spin doctor inventing one.
He hastily adds that he doesn’t advocate this, which will no doubt be a relief for Mayor Anderson. But that doesn’t mean that crises haven’t occasionally appeared.
In February 2005, Fletcher-Brown was hired by Lincolnshire County Council “for all Comms issues”. At the time, the council was imploding. One council leader had been jailed for misconduct, and another had resigned in the same murk. The whistle-blowing chief executive officer had resigned, and a management consultant, Jan Didrichsen, was hired as an interim CEO.
Fletcher-Brown previously worked with him at Hull City Council, when Didrichsen was their interim chief executive. In Lincolnshire, Didrichsen made Fletcher-Brown the temporary head of communications. He rebuilt the department, expanding it from five to 30.
A year later, Orchard News Bureau revealed that he was hired by email, in a quick back-and-forth with Didrichsen in which the £850 a day + plus VAT rate was agreed. By this time he had earned around £200,000 from the troubled council.
This side-stepped government regulations on council appointments, as the contract should have been properly advertised and quotations sought. When the story broke, the council described the situation as “regrettable”, and said that a procurement review was under way.
In May 2010, Fletcher-Brown was brought back again by Lincolnshire council at the same rate. This time he was asked to review the department he had set up, five years before, to cut costs and teach them to communicate effectively. It might have saved time and money to do that the first time.
On this occasion the story did make the papers, with Lincolnshire councillors being asked to justify £850 a day to be told how to save money.
Even with the cost to Liverpool’s council, no one hires PR experts to deliver good news. Maybe we should be expecting some bad news to break.