ANALYSIS: COI's Fisher to chair PRWeek Awards - Carol Fisher, outgoing chief executive of COI Communications, talks to Kate Nicholas about her departure from the post and the role of public relations in government campaigns

As COI Communications chief executive, Carol Fisher has overseen a marketing budget most private sector CEOs can only dream of. Since the government is also one of the largest public sector PR clients, Fisher is a natural choice for this year's PRWeek Awards chair.

Her resignation, only a matter of days after we persuaded her to oversee this year's awards judging, did, admittedly, come as something of a surprise.

But her expertise is by no means limited to this role, and whatever her next assignment, it is certain to be one of considerable influence.

She has an impressive CV. She spent 20 years in top marketing positions at major brands and heading media sales operations, before her move to the COI in 1999. She is probably right to say she could look at almost any opportunity: 'In this job I am Janus-like, in that I am both agency and client. The COI is an agency to government departments, but a client to the outside world. I also know how government departments work.'

Fisher, who leaves at the end of the month, having steered the COI successfully through its five-year review, is open to offers. She certainly wouldn't rule out a job in PR and comms, but is unlikely to end up as comms director at a multi-national: 'Frankly, I think I have gone beyond that. It wouldn't be the best use of my skills'.

The more likely route would be through one of the large marketing services groups. She has openly criticised the industry for failing to evolve in line with the market, and has a vision of a more integrated marketing offering: 'They (marketing services groups) think the answer is to buy other firms, but unless they change culture it won't make an iota of difference.'

There has been intense speculation as to the timing of her departure, six months after the completion of her three-year contract and following the expansion of her role to include the co-ordination of all government campaigns, reporting to Number 10's director of communications and strategy Alastair Campbell.

She remains, however, dismissive of suggestions that the potential for politicisation of campaigns made her role unworkable. Fisher insists she had a good working relationship with Campbell and that 'he was supportive of the idea, even though it wasn't his.'

She says: 'He did not ask for it and it was not suggested by Number 10 - it all came out of the five-year review. The only reason Alastair gets involved in the loop is when there is an issue that Number 10 is particularly interested in (such as timing), or if it is not possible to reconcile the needs of various parties - then he has to arbitrate.'

The idea, according to Fisher, is 'to catch up with what already exists on the press side, where there is a joining up of departments and a prioritising of news stories. It is mainly about sharing information. Most clients see it as a benefit, they don't want to be tripping over each other's campaigns.'

Despite the level of speculation, she dismisses the much-vaunted theory that disappointment at the Cabinet Office's failure to tackle the breakaway of the DTLR from the COI roster forced the move. 'That was not the reason for my resignation,' she says, sticking to the official line that she only continued in the role beyond her contractual period to see through the five-year review: 'It was never my intention to become a career civil servant.'

Whoever succeeds her will inherit a highly professional and respected comms operation, and the challenge of engaging an increasingly cynical public, disillusioned by Labour spin, and wise to the ways of marketing: 'The big challenge is to ensure the credibility of the messages, and to cut through the thousands of messages out there every day. There is no such thing as a public service message in the audience's mind. We have to speak the same motivating language that Nike does.'

Of the Government's 2001/2002 £295m marketing budget, the lion's share (£195m) was still spent on advertising, but PR spend is rising along with the need to get specific messages to more narrowly-defined target communities.

'You couldn't do this with advertising - it would be expensive and wasteful,' she says.

The COI's PR roster includes around 26 agencies - among them August.One Communications, Edelman PR Worldwide, Financial Dynamics, Fishburn Hedges, Luther Pendragon, Band & Brown Communications, The Red Consultancy and Ketchum. 'In the past our profile wasn't as strong in PR as it was in the ad world,' says Fisher. 'We had a struggle to get decent agencies to apply, but when we did the roster this time just about every top agency applied.'

The COI also has a roster of evaluation agencies and has designed its own evaluation system, PRESS. Every agency job is evaluated with the results influencing both future recommendations and the shape of the roster. The COI also advises on briefs and encourages clients to set measurable targets.

Fisher adds: 'Policy officials don't always take below-the-line briefing as seriously as above-the-line but when PR goes wrong it is more serious.

Many don't understand the need for communications ... the answer is, you are publicly accountable.' Wise words that might stand her successor in good stead.

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