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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.