Birmingham City Council’s Communications Director Debra Davis has resigned. Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale examines her lively tenure.
Debra Davis certainly belonged to the low profile school of spin doctors.
Almost never seen at cabinet meetings after the first few months, she rarely if ever involved herself in briefing journalists, preferring instead to assume a back-room strategic role to justify her £120,000-a-year salary.
Nor did she appear to have a particularly close working relationship with famously hands-on city council leader Mike Whitby.
She was, however, an enthusiastic networker and a regular on the Birmingham business social scene along with her flamboyant white-tuxedoed, long-haired partner Alan Grindley who, early rumours mistakenly had it, was a member of the 1960s pop group The Troggs.
Ms Davis, 55, will take up a new role as Director of Communications at City TV Birmingham, a company set up by Mr Grindley to provide local news and entertainment programmes. She starts at City TV in mid-July, but has already cleared her desk at the council and will not return.
Ms Davis, who said she was using up “a large amount of accrued annual leave”, intends to spend a month in her native Canada working on the campaign to elect George Smitherman, former Ontario Minister of Health and Deputy Premier, as Mayor of Toronto.
If, when she was appointed in January 2007, the political leaders of Birmingham City Council thought they were hiring someone whose pedigree would deliver them good publicity in local and national newspapers, things did not turn out that way.
The front-line role of dealing with journalists, spinning stories and, occasionally, complaining to editors, went to the highly effective and well respected Deborah Harries, Head of News at the council and a former press officer to John Prescott.
Debra Davis, who in her early years worked as a special assistant within the office of the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was a surprise choice when she landed the post as the city council’s first Director of Public Affairs and Communications.
Ironically, during 40 months in charge, she became best known for writing a report that led to the re-organisation of the public affairs and communications department and ultimately made her departure inevitable.
Staff were taken aback by the strident tone of the analysis, which concluded the unit lacked strategic planning and, crucially, had no idea whether what it did worked or was value for money.
All the report really did was to confirm Mike Whitby’s suspicion that the city’s PR and communications efforts were failing. He had already sanctioned putting out important PR campaigns such as the new library to private sector agencies rather than relying entirely on in-house efforts.
Ms Davis said there was no proper planning of communications across the council and no process for measuring the effectiveness of PR.
Damningly, she added that communications was based on “hunches” about what might work rather than sound research.
Most worryingly of all, Ms Davis claimed the council “does not know” how much it spends on communications and whether it is getting value for money.
The tone of the paper surprised some insiders, who pointed out that, since Ms Davis had been in her high-profile job for just over two-and-a-half years when the document was written, she ought to carry some share of the blame for a serious communications failure.
Her comments were contained in a staff consultation paper, which led to a major overhaul of public affairs and communications.
Efficiency savings amounting to £650,000 are expected to be delivered by cutting staff, getting rid of Ms Davis’s salary, and maximising income from advertising.
The only other occasion Ms Davis really came to public view left her bosses scurrying to defend her after it emerged she spent £15,000 of taxpayers’ money on foreign trips and entertaining in a year. This included £1,000 in a single day at a luxury hotel in Toronto. She paid back £568 of personal expenses spent at the luxury Fairmont Hotel three months after the trip.
Council chief executive Stephen Hughes said there was nothing unusual about the expenditure, while for her part Ms Davis described the amounts as “extraordinarily modest”.
The failure of Birmingham to get its message across has been a talking point among the city’s business and political communities for years.
Former council regeneration director Clive Dutton famously described Birmingham as being “anonymous” in London and before leaving for a new job in the capital last year urged the council to hand strategic communications over to a “top-notch” private agency.
In a statement released by the council this week, Ms Davis said: “I was asked to do a job. The restructure is being implemented.
“Efficiencies have been achieved and the council’s profile in the news – online and in the broadcast and print media – has greatly improved.”
Sharon Lea, Strategic Director of Environment & Culture, will take over responsibility for the Public Affairs and Communications Division.