Senior councillors have been given training on how to speak to journalists – at a cost to the council of £600 per hour.
Shetland Islands Council shelled out £8,914.04 this year for 14 hours of media training with PR firm Morrison Media. That includes travel and subsistence costs.
A total of 11 councillors took part across two sessions – lasting seven hours each – held at Lerwick Town Hall and Islesburgh Community Centre, led by former BBC journalist John Morrison.
The revelations follow a Freedom of Information (FoI) request lodged by The Shetland Times.
The council’s senior communications officer, Carol Anderson, said there was “extremely positive feedback” from the training sessions.
This is not the first time councillors have been given formal training on dealing with journalists.
According to Ms Anderson, it has been provided since at least 2007, taking place near the beginning of each council term.
In 2013, the council paid £5,176.54 for eight hours of training (and other costs) with StopPress! Media, held in the Islesburgh Community Centre. This worked out at £647 per hour.
This year the money spent on training increased by over 70 per cent due to the greater number of contact hours signed up for. The hourly rate was very similar to 2013, working out at £637 per hour.
The increased payout this year was funded by carrying forward an underspend in last year’s budget for “corporate and executive services”.
According to the council, the purpose of the training was to “equip senior councillors with the skills and information to work with journalists on TV/radio/print/online interviews, etc”.
Shetland South representative and vice-chairman of the ZetTrans committee Robbie McGregor, who took part in the exercise this year, said he found the experience “very, very useful”.
Mr McGregor said: “I would not be prepared to comment on whether it’s value for money where the total cost is concerned but I would have been prepared to pay £200-£300 myself and I wish I had got this training 30 years ago.
“I have always been uncomfortable as far as live media is concerned and it’s given me a lot of confidence.”
Former councillor and ex-journalist Jonathan Wills did not take part in formal media training during his time in the council, totalling over a decade, but said it was desirable to encourage councillors to speak in plain English and to help them highlight good news.
However, he was surprised to learn of the price paid for training with Morrison Media and StopPress! Media and doubted whether it ensured value for money.
“I think the cost seems a little high,” Dr Wills said, adding: “Our council is very lucky to have a fair local news media and I would have thought some of the boys and girls in the news outlets could have given them a few hints.”
In addition to the sessions delivered by PR firms, councillors were given informal media training in 2013 and 2017 by Ms Anderson, who was Radio Shetland’s producer before joining the council’s communications department in 2012.
This consisted of one-to-one sessions, free of charge, lasting two hours. According to the council, the aim was to equip councillors with the “skills and information to work with local media, focusing on the local context”.
Ms Anderson said she continued to give such training when “required or requested”.
Members of the public who spoke to The Shetland Times were critical of the council’s spending on media training.
Campbell Jamieson, retired, from Lerwick called the formal training “a waste of money”.
He said: “I don’t think they should be paying anything. I think they [councillors] should be competent enough, the fact they have been voted in.”
Voicing similar scepticism, post office employee Mandy Stephen, from Bressay, said people wishing to be councillors should already be able to deal with journalists.
“Public speaking should be part of the criteria for the job,” she said, adding: “They should just be honest and open.”
In 2010, the Accounts Commission (the watchdog for councils) recommended that Shetland Islands Council should improve the way it communicates with the local community.
It also urged the authority to improve its relationship with the media and to recognise “the media’s legitimate interest in council matters”.
In the aftermath of those findings, the council set up its communications department.