Satisfaction against the odds

Undervalued, under-resourced and under pressure - there is evidence that some public sector PROs are seriously frustrated. Steve Hemsley looks at what it's really like in this demanding sector.

'PR spin is costing Welsh taxpayers more than £4m a year,' yelled Wales on Sunday at the end of July. Using figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the paper questioned why the country's 22 councils were 'splashing out' on 72 press officers 'to put spin on bad news' instead of spending the money on improving services.

For those it directly attacked, and public sector PROs across the UK who already feel they spend too much time firefighting while having to justify their existence, this type of story is a blow to morale.

'Self-esteem suffers when central government talks about staff cuts in the public sector and when your job is described as a waste of money,' says Cardiff Council PR officer Rob Webb.

'It leaves people feeling very jaded.'

Restricted creativity

According to the PRWeek/Ketchum Staff Retention survey last week, there is cause for concern about discontent among public sector PROs. Sixty-seven per cent of those working in-house said they expected to be with their current employer in a year's time. This compares with 75 per cent of agency PROs and 69 per cent of in-house private sector PROs.

According to the report, public sector PROs worry that their creativity and freedom of expression are being curbed by internal political correctness. Many are also frustrated by the amount of performance assessments they endure - especially disheartening when their private sector peers are brought in to run the high-profile campaigns that could have been their chance to shine.

'People want be creative but they can feel restricted,' confirms Pat Gaudin, head of comms at Chelmsford Borough Council and chair of the CIPR's Local Government Group. 'There is an enormous amount of creativity in the public sector if you look for it, but PROs must work within strict boundaries, often set by a government that demands they work on projects such as waste and the environment. PROs get fed up because budgets are constantly under scrutiny as this is public money being spent.'

If a public sector PR team does find the time to be proactive and launch a campaign, it often has to win tough internal funding battles to pay for it. 'It is rare for the comms team to be given a hefty budget for a specific campaign, which means the press office must find the money from the specific department concerned, such as education or social services, and this is not easy,' adds Gaudin. Some PROs may also be looking to leave their current posts because of the stressful environment in which they work, particularly in areas such as social services where the stories that break can be quite distressing.

Yet for those keen to remain in the public sector for the long term there is an equally strong determination to make the most of their role despite the obstacles they face.

At Surrey Heath Borough Council, communications manager Jerry Fisher works with a budget that has not changed in ten years. But rather than complain, he shows his staff how they can be effective by being resourceful.

'We make more use of e-media than we used to, which saves time and money,' says Fisher, who has worked in local government PR for 21 years. He also argues that despite the day-to-day pressures it is still possible to proactively help the council and local residents.

Fisher cites the example of research carried out by his department among 9,000 homes in Surrey prior to the relaunch of a leaflet encouraging people to pay their council tax by direct debit. 'We asked householders why they did or did not pay their bills this way, and whether more flexible payment dates would persuade them. We also looked at the cash-flow implications for the council of changing the current rules,' he explains.

'By listening to local people we will launch an extremely well-informed communications strategy to residents and the media later this year,' Fisher adds. 'We can also measure the impact of this work and justify our role by the number of people who subsequently switch to direct debit.'

According to Ian Ratcliffe, head of marketing and communications at Stockport Council, happiness in public sector PR depends on what PROs make of their jobs, and it is up to them to fight their corner for recognition and generate exciting ideas.

'In 2002 a government report called "Connecting with Communities" found the public's satisfaction with their local council was directly related to the amount of communication they received about what their council was doing for them,' he says. 'We decided to present this to the board to encourage support for our work.'

Since then, Stockport Council has increased the size of its PR department from eight to 20 people, all of whom have previous private and public sector experience. It has also created new PR roles aligned at different areas of the authority.

For example, from this month it will begin to merge its Social Services and Education departments into a new Children and Young People's Services office, and has broadened the responsibility of its officers to reflect this. 'The reason we have high staff retention is because we have been able to position ourselves at the heart of the organisation,' Ratcliffe says.

Private sector collaboration

This year Greenwich Council rose to fame through collaboration with the private sector via its involvement in Channel 4's Jamie's School Dinners, filmed at the borough's Kidbrooke School. The council's healthy-eating campaign around the programme scooped the authority two gongs at this year's CIPR Excellence Awards.

Greenwich communications manager Stuart Godfrey says his department will devise its future activity around the council's long-term priorities, such as improvement in council house provision, the revamp of secondary schools and involvement in the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2012.

'Public sector PR can be over-looked because people do not expect local government to provide shining examples of best practice. We are happy to prove them wrong,' he adds.

Like Greenwich, the comms team at Westminster City Council has also benefited from covering a high-profile area. Media officer Natalie Orringe joined from a private consultancy and accepts she needs a different mindset to work in the public sector.

'There is a lot of firefighting but you can find time to generate creative ideas if you really want to. We like to feel valued and we did receive a memo from the chief executive after the London bombings in July thanking us for our efforts,' she says.

Orringe is particularly proud of working with chewing gum brand Wrigleys to reduce the amount of gum on the streets. For the campaign, a team of 'gum busters' marched down Oxford Street dressed as Italian footballers alongside a double of referee Pierluigi Collina, who brandished red cards at anyone spitting chewing gum onto the pavement.

Meanwhile across the capital, Katy Gibbins, campaigns and communications officer for Lambeth Council's Community Safety Team, recently worked alongside colleagues in Southwark Council and with youth marketing group Livity to inform young people about the negative impact of gun crime. There were competitions to create anti-gun slogans, and recognisable faces, such as hip-hop star Estelle, performer Lethal B and BBC1 Xtra's Ace & Vis, took part in publicity.

This month, the team at Lambeth followed this up by joining forces with young people's group Connexions to help raise awareness among 11 to 18-year-olds of race and religious issues in the wake of the 7 July terror attacks. The campaign, 'our Lambeth, our London', advised youths on how the bombings affected different communities.

'Having more than one council involved can add to the bureaucracy when it comes to who should fund an initiative, but the success of campaigns like this can all depend on the relationship you have with other press officers,' explains Gibbins.

The grass is greener?

These examples may buck the trend, and whether the internal problems that often beset public sector PROs will ever be replaced by a more private sector type of environment is a moot point. Adrian Johnson, a former freelance journalist, worked at Wakefield Metropolitan District Council between 2000 and 2003 before moving to the private consultancy sector.

He left the public sector after finding the environment in which he worked difficult to cope with.

'It was a constant firefighting job and the pressure was extremely intensive because I was working exclusively in social services where a negative story can break at any time,' he says.

Johnson adds that with the wrong ingredients, isolated regional stories could escalate quickly to the national news agenda: 'Asylum seekers, people with disabilities, single parents, children in care - they are all, unfortunately, the basis for great news hooks.'

Johnson argues that creativity is a skill that public sector PROs should be encouraged to display on a day-to-day basis. 'You have to be more creative than with some private clients because you have less to work with and often have to dig deeper to find that positive angle,' he adds. That said though, he knows he won't be returning any time soon.

'Unfortunately, I could not return to the public sector,' he admits.

'Not just because of the red tape - which I found so draining - but because I like working across multiple accounts. Now as a director of Leeds-based agency Lucre, I've been able to shape the way the company works.

While the public sector may not be regarded as terribly sexy for young, newly qualified PROs, the reverse is true for some more-established and experienced practitioners.

Recruitment consultant VMA Group reports a surge in interest among private sector PROs who want to 'give something back' by working in the public sector - either for local government, voluntary organisations, an emergency service or the NHS.

Give something back

'Many people want to use their PR skills in what they perceive to be a more worthwhile way rather than to promote an FMCG product,' says Vicki Jay, senior consultant at VMA. 'They see the public sector as more challenging and rewarding, while the job security, pension and more flexible hours can also appeal.'

But does that mean they are shocked when they arrive in the sector? One candidate placed by VMA is Catherine Folan. Having worked in-house at T-Mobile and for agency Lewis PR, she is now a senior employee comms executive at London Underground. She joined on 4 July, three days before the London bombings.

'This tragic event threw me in at the deep end but it meant I met many people in the business quickly,' says Folan. 'I wanted a role that would give me a better work/life balance and allow me to operate in an ingrained culture.'

She adds: 'I have had to be more imaginative because London Underground does not exactly have the latest technology. This has meant returning to face-to-face meetings rather than relying on email. But I do not miss anything about the private sector. I already feel more loyal to this company than I ever did for my private sector employers.'

There is a general perception that the public sector is bureaucratic and political, but there are many private sector firms and clients that can be equally frustrating, and less satisfying, to work for.

The solution for PROs spending public money is to ensure the people they serve, the media and their bosses understand the value they bring, while exploiting their sometimes hidden creative talents.

'PRESSURED BUT REWARDING'

Jennifer Andrewes - senior media officer, Cardiff Council

Originally from New Zealand where she worked for a political party, Jennifer Andrewes has worked at Cardiff Council for five years.

She will return to New Zealand at the end of the year but is keen to remain in the public sector.

'The role of local authorities in the UK is different to that in New Zealand and the typical PR team deals with a much broader range of activities,' she says. 'Residents are much more interested in what their councils are doing over here. There are misconceptions that you do not get the chance to be creative in the public sector. We have worked on interesting projects for the city of Cardiff, the Millennium Stadium and Cardiff Castle. It is all about balancing reactive and proactive work. This is a pressured environment but it is interesting and rewarding too.' Andrewes admits, however, that the work of the public sector is scrutinised much more closely in the UK than it is in New Zealand.

One of her favourite projects since joining the council was the Children's Capital Jubilee Lights celebrations, for which children from around Wales prepared designs for a Christmas lights display at the Millennium Stadium last December.

'I WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE'

Sarah Jones - head of public affairs, NHS Confederation

After leaving university, Sarah Jones wrote to every Labour MP looking for work and eventually secured a permanent position with the late Mo Mowlam in Northern Ireland as a researcher. She went on to work in the London Labour Party press office during the 1997 general election campaign and subsequently joined her local MP, Geraint Davies, before moving to the voluntary sector.

At homelessness charity Shelter, Jones held a number of roles during her four-year stay, and was latterly campaigns and public affairs manager when she left to join the NHS in March. 'I did not make an active decision to not work in the private sector and I appreciate there is value in both,' she says. 'But whenever I've made a career move I have looked for certain things.

'Most importantly I want to make a difference. I need a challenging PR job to stimulate me. At the NHS I can see the influence our department has. If I do get bogged down in bureaucracy, I remind myself how an effective communications team can help improve patient care. I do not think communications in the public sector is yet as highly valued as it is in the private sector.'

'PUBLIC SECTOR WASN'T FOR ME'

Siobhan Kenny, vice-president of communications, Walt Disney Television

The lure of a private sector job with Walt Disney Television was too strong for Siobhan Kenny, who decided to quit the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in June. Kenny was the DCMS's director of strategy and communication for three years, but left just before the 2012 Olympic Games decision was announced.

Kenny has moved between the public and private sectors more than once during her career. She spent five years at Number 10, first in the press office and then the Strategic Communications Unit, working for both John Major and Tony Blair. She left to become head of communications for the National Magazine Company, publisher of Cosmopolitan and Harpers & Queen, before moving to the DCMS to oversee projects such as the BBC Charter Renewal and London's bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

'I believe communications skills are transferable but you face different challenges in the public sector,' she says. 'Public sector PROs do work in some very stressful environments but there is a "6 O'clock news" mentality which adds to the pressure. Big stories break all the time and you can be as strategic as you want with your PR over the long term, but if you are not on the evening news to get your point of view across when something big happens you will be swamped.'

Kenny's Walt Disney Television role includes responsibility for implementing the company's corporate and entertainment strategies across the EMEA territories.

She is based in London and reports to senior vice-president for communications Kevin Brockman.

'Where you end up in PR can ultimately depend on what your first and second jobs are. The worlds of the public and private sectors can seem very different but they are not so far apart if you are a good communicator,' she says. 'I enjoyed my time at the DCMS, particularly on the Olympic bid, but working for a global brand such as Disney brings its own excitement and the international element of the job was attractive.'

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