PR must be at the top table

When I spoke at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Rebuilding Hope conference my theme was that PR professionals had an essential role to play in community regeneration and cohesion. However, too often professional communicators are brought in too late to have an input in helping to develop a strategy. The other problem is that important communications issues are often given to people with no or little experience or expertise in communications.

This is a theme that is also explored by Liza Greaves in the latest issue of PR News, the newsletter of CIPR’s local government group. She cites data from a survey of 92 senior PR professionals in local authorities across the UK. The majority (87%) said that they believe  managed communications is seen as a strategic function where they work and 90% say it is supported by their senior management team. However that is where the good news ends.

A staggering 71% think council departments don’t budget for it appropriately and 77% say they fail to plan in advance. My experience both as a public sector PR consultant and as an elected local councillor confirms this finding. It’s all very well councils at a corporate level realising the importance of public relations but unless this is translated into reality across dozens of different departments then it means very little.

Liza says that "in many parts of the public sector communications management is still seen as an optional extra, something to be indulged in when the serious work has been done". I’m not sure I agree with that as I think most departments recognise its importance but the main problem is they think they can do it themselves. Officers who would never dream of sitting down and writing a contract without a lawyer’s help or auditing a budget without an accountants help think it’s easy to "do communications".

That’s the main reason why so many appallingly bad newsletters are constantly churned out by public sector organisations throughout the country. Public sector directors need to start putting a sensible part of their budget towards communication – often they are spending the money anyway just not very well and from other budgets. The second thing they need to do is to get professional support and advice. This might be from a central council PR and marketing department or it might be from an external consultant. Either way it doesn’t need to cost a fortune and the results will be reflected in the performance of their department.