At a time when Scotland’s largest council is facing possible strike action over equal pay, and has just lost its bid to host the UK’s first supercasino, it may come as a surprise that one of the council’s newest employees is taking the whole thing in his stride. But Colin Edgar, the head of press and marketing for Glasgow City Council, is used to taking things in his stride. After all, the 30-year-old has devoted much of his life – both personal and professional – to working for the Scottish Labour Party as its head of media.
Edgar graduated from Glasgow University in 1997 and went on to work for Jim Mackie MP for a couple of years before joining BBC Scotland as a researcher. A year later, the BBC started a new programme called Politics Tonight and Edgar became its producer.
Following his time at the BBC, he moved on to become head of media for Scottish Labour, a position he held for four years. But the job took its toll on his personal life, so he left the public sector to join BAE Systems.
This foray into private companies was short-lived though. “There weren’t enough crises for my liking and it doesn’t move quickly enough,” Edgar says. “Although I had moved out of politics because I needed a bit of a break, it was too much of a break.”
Handling communications and media for Glasgow City Council should satisfy any need Edgar harbours for a challenge. He took over from Caryl Jackson in October, and in just four months has already had to handle some huge stories. These include the continued threat of strike action from council employees, council leader Steven Purcell’s decision to reveal he’s gay despite being married, and the failed casino bid. Add the Uefa Cup final at Hampden this summer and Glasgow’s ongoing bid for the Commonwealth Games, and it seems Edgar couldn’t have chosen a busier time to join the council. And as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already, he also oversees a team of 22 staff, which includes the corporate communications team, and an
in-house advertising team of six.
“It’s easier to tell you what I’m not responsible for,” Edgar laughs. “My role doesn’t cover internal communications, although obviously there is a link to it. The marketing of the city to the tourists is done by the city marketing bureau, and they’ve done some absolutely amazing stuff. The communications function within the council is much more focused on promoting services in Glasgow. It’s about making the city work, using communications to make the city work and making the work of the council known to the citizens.”
Despite having an in-house sales team, the council is often willing to look to outside agencies for help with marketing campaigns on a grander scale. For this, it has a roster of four agencies pitching for campaigns.
“If you didn’t want creativity, you wouldn’t go outside,” Edgar says. “We have professional marketing people on the council, we’ve got designers, we’ve got an advertising agency in the council, so we can do the nuts and bolts. The reason you go outside is for a fresh perspective.”
A big part of Edgar’s job is dealing with the city’s huge network of newspapers. The council enjoys a close working relationship with the Evening Times in particular, and that is something Edgar is keen to build on.
“It’s unfair to say the Evening Times do good PR for us,” he says. “They’re prepared to give us a slap when we need it. I don’t know what it’s been like in the past, but when a newspaper like the Evening Times, which can justifiably claim to speak to, and for, a large chunk of Glasgow, gives you a slap on something like litter – which they’ve been doing recently – or transport, we have to be big enough to say, ‘We’re going to sit down with you and look at what you’re saying to us.’
“It’s not because we’re going to react to every little story in the media, but because we want to have a look at whether there genuinely is a problem and whether there is something we can do to deal with that problem. It would be perverse to ignore it just because it is a newspaper.
“I sometimes have the feeling that communications professionals and organisations corporately think, ‘They might be telling me to do this, but I’m not going to because they’re telling me.’ That’s the wrong attitude. You have to be more open and listen when the media is talking. Some organisations are too defensive and too quick to say, ‘Well, let’s just not listen to what the media are saying.’ I sincerely hope we will never do that.”
Edgar sees his main role as that of a guide and an advisor to the public faces of the council: the councillors and officials. “My job is to advise parties, officers and councillors in their dealings with the media,” he says. “It may be that I need to encourage them to be more proactive in what they’re doing. It may be that I want to spend more time explaining a situation to a newspaper or a media outlet. Or it may be – if we as a council genuinely want to look at what is being said to us and take steps to deal with it – it’s the job of this department to give people advice.”
Edgar’s biggest challenge in the coming months will be the switch to a single transferable vote in May. “You’re not just going to mark a piece of paper and drop it in a slit any more because these ballot papers are going to be counted electronically,” he says. “There’s never been an election like this. So we’ve got a big job to do, both in terms of PR and marketing. And there’s also a big job to do in teaching our own staff how these things work.
“The Scottish Executive has put away an amount of money to pay for education, but closer to the time, we’re going to have to find a way of engaging the local media to engage their readers in understanding this new form of participation.”
And following on from the elections, there will be a host of new councillors across the city. That will necessitate a huge communications operation to let everyone know who their local councillor is.
“We will communicate a good, quick, efficient count on the night of the election and then we will move quickly into promoting the new councillors,” Edgar says. “The people of Glasgow have a right to feel they are being properly represented, and one of the ways we can do that is to help councillors talk to their communities.
“I, as a citizen, am always going to feel better about my place in the world if I know I have an active place in the community. So, in mechanical terms, after the election there’s going to be a difficult job that needs to be done quickly to start communicating who the councillors are.”
It looks as though 2007 is going to be a big year for the City of Glasgow. At least, in terms of PR and marketing, it looks to be in safe hands.