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So public affairs is OK, just not in the public sector?

6 Aug

The populist move by Communities and Local Government secretary Eric Pickles to end 'lobbying on the rates' is good politics (following on from the bonfire of the quangos).

"Taxpayer-funded lobbying and propaganda on the rates weakens our democracy" are words ascribed to Pickles in his department's press release (that wouldn't be propaganda though; surely that's public relations).

Lobbying always sounds bad, especially when one publicly-funded body is lobbying another part of government in support of its own interests. Who can argue against a reduction in taxpayer-funded lobbying and propaganda?

The language is archaic though. Lobbying implies something covert and undemocratic; propaganda always suggests evil intent, though there can be 'white propaganda'; public relations is at least capable of being open and accountable. The rates – for anyone reading this younger than me – was a discredited system of local government taxation that was replaced by the current Council Tax (after the controversial interlude of the so-called Poll Tax).

But while I've no argument with the politics of this move, here's an objection at a more philosophical level.

If you have one monolithic government (let's view this as a communist model for argument's sake), then clearly it's nonsense to have one branch lobbying another. It wouldn't happen in China, would it?

But if your philosophy is in favour of small government and the redistribution of powers to localities and communities (surely the thinking behind the Big Society), then you are in favour of diversity of provision and plurality of expression. This means there will be more organisations competing for funding and attention: community groups, activists, not-for-profit organisations and local government all using public relations techniques (up to and including lobbying and propaganda) to support their causes and to defend their licences to operate.

It sounds popular to attack government waste including the spending on PR – but the way I see it the Big Society and the devolution of powers to communities will result in more PR, not less.

Markets versus stakeholders

20 Aug

I've been hearing lots of hints lately to suggest that PR people in the public sector feel at some disadvantage compared with their colleagues working in the private sector. (The suggestions make it sound like like it's an envy of larger budgets and also an inability to innovate and take risks).

I'm still puzzling over this perception, but here's one possible explanation.

Successful private sector business tend to adopt a market-orientation. The more customer-focused, the argument goes, the more successul will the enterprise be for all stakeholders (shareholders, employees etc). This market-orientation gives a clear focus to efforts, and leads to some simple and definitive measures of success (like sales).

Compare this with the more confused stakeholder orientation in a public body, trying to balance many different interests without any simple outcome measures.

But I can see an immediate flaw in this argument, because public relations within a market-orientated business is a less rounded and less strategic activity (ie marketing communications) than public relations within a stakeholder-orientation (where it's usually known as corporate communications).

Add to this the effects of the recession, which have to date mostly been felt in the private sector, and I remain confused as to root of this apparent insecurity.

The question of public relations and the public good

7 Nov

It had been an obstacle on the rocky road to the royal charter – the question of how PR contributes to the public good.

I’m a guest at a police public relations conference and no one here would have any difficulty in answering this question. Their everyday work on crime reduction and their handling of major incidents exemplifies this. They don’t need to go chasing headlines; they’re in the local news each day and frequently gain national attention.

I’m humbled by the quality of the work on display. One former broadcast journalist told how he used his visual storytelling skills to relate the experience of a young victim of fireworks burns. The video only had a few hundred viewings, so he used his persuasive skills to have it featured on YouTube in the run up to November 5. It was then watched hundreds of thousands of times. Cheap, creative, effective; and clearly for the public good.

The attendees are typical of other public relations gatherings: there’s something like a 60-40 ratio of women to men. At last night’s black tie dinner this seemed to me as glamorous a group of people as you would meet at an equivalent awards dinner attended by consultancy staff. But they’re a few years older, on average. The typical route in to police communications remains print of broadcast media experience, though there’s widespread respect for education – I had many conversations about the CIPR professional qualifications and our MSc in Corporate Communications.

There was an award for a talented young communicator and Amy Grimshaw, a final year undergraduate, gained plaudits for confidently delivering the better part of ‘my’ talk on communications and social media.