Platform: An inside out way of keeping your house in order - Adopting a consultancy-style approach to PR can help in-house departments get the best of both worlds, says Mark Fletcher

In-house or outsourced? That’s what the debate at the IPR Local Government conference held a couple of weeks ago boiled down to. In the end, there was no vote.

In-house or outsourced? That’s what the debate at the IPR Local

Government conference held a couple of weeks ago boiled down to. In the

end, there was no vote.



And while that might be a bit disappointing for a debate, it probably

says a lot about what each side can and needs to learn from each

other.



Keeping PR in-house has many advantages. You’re on the scene. When

things go wrong the people who can sort it out are usually down the

corridor.



What’s more, they can separate the real problems from those which have

been created in the political game-playing that goes on. It takes an

insider’s eyes to spot moving and shaking for what it is.



Yet outsourcing PR can offer focus and clarity. Consultants can say the

unsayable - they’re paid to. They don’t have to curry the same favours

and can afford to weed out helpless ambitions from happening plans.



The formula for success is when in-house people behave as though they

were outside consultants. That brings with it discipline. It is then

that the PR department stops being the place where staff dump all of

their insoluble problems. It is then that they start to realise what PR

can and can’t do.



The public sector is an obvious area where consultancy-style thinking

can help councils be more effective in their PR. A virus is spreading

through the public sector. It’s called ’we need a communication

strategy’.



In-house teams are expected to deliver. I know this. I speak to them and

hear the same complaints about how difficult it is to deliver the

undeliverable.



The problem is not in the PR strategy itself. It’s in the aims.

Typically the in-house brief will be to convince local people that the

council is an ’enabling authority’ or that it believes in ’democratic

renewal’. But what do those mean? Enabling people to do what, when and

how?



You might well ask. Council PROs do and the answers don’t always make

more sense. A consultant might be able to force the council to be

absolutely clear about what it wants. They need to. After all, you can

only know you’re successful if your client can see that it’s getting

what it paid for.



In-house teams which become confident enough to ask their ’clients’ what

they really want to achieve will spend less time writing documents

destined for dusty shelves.



Press relations is a good example of an area which would benefit from a

consultancy approach. Practice varies, but in some councils all calls

are handled by the PR office. Fine most of the time, but some

journalists will do all they can to avoid talking to a PRO and go

straight to the council officer concerned. And, as the journalist

circumnavigates the press officer, the council’s message can go out of

the window.



In these circumstances, PROs feel pressured. They can’t be proactive

because they’re too busy answering the phone. But apply consultancy

thinking and look at the cost versus outcome equation. It probably won’t

take long before you’re starting to put training and awareness

programmes in place to make sure that council officers who do get

tracked down by the media think, then talk. The best authorities do this

and it works.



Another example is value for money. How many in-house teams can measure

what return their council gets on the PR pound? Again a consultancy will

pull out press cuttings, appearances and bottom lines to justify their

bills. They make sure that their client feels the weight of their cash

investment.



When the squeeze is on, outsourced thinking could well keep in-house

people in the house long after others have taken the long walk.



Mark Fletcher is a partner at Reputation.



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