Alex Aiken: If you don't change, PR will end up working in HR

The human resources trade was described by a leading recruitment consultant as 'the evil empire' last week at the annual local government communications conference.

Alex Aiken: Beware the evil empire
Alex Aiken: Beware the evil empire
We might all like a joke at the expense of colleagues in HR, but the talk around the LGcomms conference was of a real threat, of corporate PR teams losing status, seeing their manager made redundant and the service transferred to sit in human resources or as part of a wider corporate services team.

The last ten years have been a period of extraordinary change and improvement in government communications. The range of initiatives is staggering from the general drive to digital communications and more professional media handling to specific projects like the Reputation Campaign and Connecting with Communities.

The profession of government communication had more and better managers with strategic grip, operational skills and innovative delivery techniques. Yet the past year has seen many heads of communication and PR managers among the first casualties of the financial retrenchment. It is noteworthy that three leading government communicators – Matt Tee, Mark Lund and David Walker have all left their roles. And across the country this is being replicated locally.

It seems clear that we have not sold the importance of communication, beyond the general understanding that it is important in a wired world to keep the hacks and bloggers off the backs of our leading politicians and chief executives. Deeper reasons for investing in communications, to promote positive behaviour changes; to galvanise people to civic goals and to strengthen community cohesion seem to have been lost, or at least not understood.

There is a fundamental reason for this lack of understanding, for which we have now paid the price. PR in the public sector has never invested sufficiently in evaluation. We have never proved our worth – we failed the L’Oreal test. Evaluation has been paid lip service but even when carried out, has not really been shared or utilised. And this is a problem for the industry as a whole. The award categories for research and evaluation are inevitably the weakest in any awards competition and the CIPR even retired their ‘Research’ award several years ago.

We could start a campaign to promote public service communications, which would be tempting, but wrong, as a typically tactical PR response. We need a strategy and to begin that by debating what public service communications is for and how it has to change to adapt to the new realities of social communications, austerity and political uncertainty.

I believe that the traditional PR Manager has to give way to a new type of Chief Communication Officer, with a wider set of skills and a fourfold remit. First to focus on changing public behaviour to increase access to services and reduce costs, which is what many councils now class as ‘Transformation’. Second, to guide and deliver the corporate policies and narrative, a role currently largely held in policy. Third, to drive income through commercial ventures, the financial imperative. Finally, to manage internal change and help make staff more productive, usually the preserve of HR. Only be widening our role and being able to deliver this wider corporate role will we be able to retain a leading role in our organisations.

At an HR conference aboard the ‘Aurora’ ship recently a leading HR director asked the question ìIf HR had never been existed, would anyone have noticedî. He was spelling out what HR had to do a discipline to survive and be relevant in a changing world. Part of the prescription was to widen their communication roles. You have been warned, HR is coming after public service PR.       

Alex Aiken is director of strategy and comms at Westminster City Council

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