Scotland’s councils have been accused of spending funds that could have been used for staff pay and public services after paying millions of pounds to media and marketing firms.
The Ferret obtained data via freedom of information requests detailing nearly £2.6m of work outsourced to private firms between April 2017 to March 2022.
While all councils have in-house media teams, they outsourced some activities like PR, social media, recruitment, promotion and council staff media training.
Unison, the public services trade union which is balloting council staff for strike action to secure a pay rise, said council staff would be “angry” at The Ferret’s findings.
“Every penny of council money should be focussed on improving delivery of vital services to communities and ensuring staff get fairly paid for delivering them,” argued Johanna Baxter, Unison Scotland’s head of government.
David Miller, the director of Spinwatch, said: “These significant sums spent by Scottish councils should worry all those who believe in accountable local government.
“The PR industry is endemically bereft of good faith and chronically unable to tell the truth. Councils should invest in open and honest communication with voters not spin and deception.”
Orkney Council paid out the most money for media services – £576,000 – £180,000 of which went to David Flanagan Media for PR and media management.
It also paid £175,000 for social media, web management, film and photography from Start Point Media, and £162,000 for marketing activities from Dynam. The council did not respond to a request to comment.
A council spokesperson said: “The majority of this spend was directed at promoting our cultural and commercial venues prior to Covid, providing the specialist services needed to boost ticket sales and generate significant income for the council.”
Moray Council paid out £171,887 to six media firms, £141,698 of which went to MEP/Muckle Media. The council failed to specify what any of the costs were for, but has been approached for comment.
Of the £267,761 spent by Stirling Council, £249,621 went to ING Media to provide PR and marketing support for the Scottish Cities Alliance and to attract property investors at MIPIM, an international property event.
The council said the money came from the Scottish Cities Alliance, which includes Stirling and six other cities. “These funds [were] simply administered through Stirling Council,” a spokesperson added.
The council had spent just £18,050 on media consultants, they argued. “This covered a range of projects, including dedicated support to develop and promote Stirling’s investment and economic potential.”
Shetland Council paid £81,600 to Aspect to provide comms support for the ORION clean energy project. It also gave £67,109 to Message Matters to support the council’s “strategic messaging”, including for the fair ferry funding campaign and the Islands Growth Deal. The council did not respond to a request to comment.
East Lothian Council’s biggest bill was £100,944 for Connect Communications to design and distribute nine editions of the council’s residents’ newspaper.
“There are no plans for further editions with the council focusing on online platforms in line with budget commitments,” a spokesperson said. They added that media promotion was key to attract visitors and boost the local economy.
Falkirk, Dundee and Glasgow councils each spent £140-145,000, Aberdeen City Council spent £106,00, while 13 others spent less than £100,000. The total amount spent on media by local authorities is likely higher as the level of detail provided differed between councils. Some provided only partial data, or none at all.
Clackmannanshire, East Renfrewshire, Highland Midlothian, Perth and Kinross, South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire councils did not outsource any media activity.
In 2020, Boris Johnson defended his government’s decision to spend £130m of taxpayer money on PR consultants after facing criticism from the Labour leader, Keir Starmer. The Prime Minister said some of the money was used to counter anti-vaxxer campaigns during the Covid-19 pandemic.
We updated this article on 7 July and 3 August to include data provided in late freedom of information (FOI) responses from several councils, and updated the total figure from £2.3m to nearly £2.6m. Moray Council provided its external comms spending figures.
Following an internal review, Aberdeen City Council provided further information on its spending, totalling £106,082. It previously stated it had spent £18,227.
City of Edinburgh Council provided the complete payments it made to two media firms and full spending figures for 2021-22.
Following an internal review of its FOI response, Highland Council said it had not used any external media firms. It previously said that individual council departments may have outsourced media activities, but said it was unable to provide this information.
Are Councils Working? is an investigation by The Ferret, co-published with The Herald, exploring local issues, services, communities and more.
Support our journalism by becoming a member for £5 a month. Use discount code Sale10 to get two months free.
Cover Photo Credit: iStock/Sushiman