PUBLIC SECTOR: Who's watching who? - Watchdogs mean business, not least in the PR sector. Maja Pawinska reports on the various challenges they face

Anne Robinson and her Armani suits aside, watchdogs are big business. For every privatised utility, public body or industry sector there seems to be another mirror organisation keeping an eye on it. These watchdogs have many different roles depending on the premises they are watching, but may endeavour to make sure standards are up to scratch, that companies and bodies are playing fair and working efficiently or safely, and working in the interest of the public and their customers.

Anne Robinson and her Armani suits aside, watchdogs are big business. For every privatised utility, public body or industry sector there seems to be another mirror organisation keeping an eye on it. These watchdogs have many different roles depending on the premises they are watching, but may endeavour to make sure standards are up to scratch, that companies and bodies are playing fair and working efficiently or safely, and working in the interest of the public and their customers.

This is not a stealthy role, though: on the contrary, the watchdog is frequently expected, by the media, the public, and politicians, to be the vocal and independent spokesperson for that sector. Because of the nature of the business, particularly when it's a sensitive area on the news agenda, like food safety, their policy statements are often big news. They need to be as careful as the businesses they monitor that they are being impartial, and coming up with solutions and highlighting best practice as well as trumpeting failures and problems.

Often, though, the reason that a watchdog has been set up at all is a signal that the sector it is monitoring and guiding has a history of, or the potential to be contentious. Consumer awareness of their rights, and the need for accountability, means that more watchdogs are being set up all the time.

On the horizon, for instance, is the Office of Communications, or Ofcom, a body to oversee the entire communications industry, which was announced in a government White Paper in December. Ofcom will keep an eye on the activities of television and radio broadcasters, telecommunications and the internet, and will largely replace the role of other regulators such as the Broadcasting Standards Council and Oftel (see p16).

The positioning, image, messages and actions of these guardians are taken very seriously. The bodies below are all in that twilight zone between the private and public sectors, and here we take a look at the challenges faced by their PR functions.

The Commission for Health Improvement

CHI director of communications Matt Tee isn't at all precious about wanting everyone in the land to know the name of his organisation. This will probably save him much anguish, since the media insist on referring to it merely as the 'NHS watchdog'. All Tee wants is for the public to be aware that there is an organisation which does reports on the performance of hospitals.

'I have a vision that in three years, say, if you go to your GP and he says he's referring you to a specific hospital, you will know that there is an organisation that does a report on every hospital in the country so you can check it out.'

Much of what the CHI does in terms of PR activity is focused on the local media, since they are most likely to be interested in a report on a local hospital than the national media, unless the results are particularly bad.

Local media relations are also important right at the start of the reporting process, as CHI needs to encourage local people to come forward and talk about their experience of that hospital, and the results of this consultation process can direct the inspection. This involves public affairs as local MPs are keen to get involved.

The CHI is also responsible for carrying out investigations when things go badly wrong in the NHS, and has already produced reports on a number of rather nasty cases. It is also carrying out national studies into specific areas, and Tee is confident that when the first of these, on cancer services, is published this summer it will yield some good publicity.

The CHI takes its communications seriously. Tee sits on the board, and its CEO Dr Peter Homa had drawn up a structure which included a director of communications on the board from the start.

The team stands at six members but is likely to increase to 15 by the summer. The CHI will be publishing 160 routine inspections every year - around three launches a week - on top of the problem investigations and the national studies. The sheer size of the job - maintaining quality with so many people talking to so many media - is one of Tee's biggest challenges.

The CHI is coming across as being hard-hitting but fair with the media, and Tee is happy with this image. The CHI carried out a baseline survey to measure awareness of itself almost at the beginning of its life last year, and will be repeating the exercise annually.

Tee knows that most of the coverage of the CHI is when it is reporting on real problems with the health service, but also points out that one of its roles is to highlight best practice.

He adds: 'We are keen to say when things are being done well, and when we find things that other bits of the NHS can learn from, we want to spread that knowledge. It's a difficult positioning issue - we have to be tough, but when things are good we will say that too. It's about improving things - just saying it's rubbish won't improve anything, though we won't defend bad practice.'

At the moment the CHI website is part of the NHS site, but it is due to launch its own site in the next few weeks.

The Environment Agency

There can't be many briefs much broader than keeping an eye on, and actively trying to improve, the environment. The four-year-old agency wants to be seen as an organisation which is committed to helping create a better quality of life by improving the environment in which we work and live.

Among its aims are to achieve major and continuous improvements in the quality of air, land and water; encourage the conservation of natural resources, animals and plants; provide effective defence and warning systems to protect people against flooding; to reduce the amount of waste by encouraging people to re-use and recycle their waste; and to tell people about environmental issues by educating and informing.

Communications is at the heart of what the agency does, since it is about influencing the public, businesses and politicians. It has a major challenge on its hands - nothing less than the responsibility of effecting a change in the national consciousness.

Much of what it does is about regulation, but as director of corporate affairs Brian O'Neill points out, 'regulation alone is unlikely to have the desired outcome. It has to be underpinned with influence'. O'Neill also wants the Environment Agency to be seen as open and transparent, and as inclusive as possible in targeting its audience - which amounts to every member of the British public.

'I don't believe any social groups should be excluded from debate about the environment. We have public board meetings, which are our principle policy-making forum, and a wide range of public consultations around the country. We go out of our way to try and involve social groups who are often excluded from this kind of process.' This includes techniques such as advertising in The Voice Newspaper.

The communications team is enormous, with 45 PROs split between head office in Bristol and Millbank in London. In addition to this, there is a whole network of in-house PR professionals around the regions who report to the agency's regional offices. PR consultancies are used on a limited basis, for instance for short-term distinct campaigns such as last autumn's Flood Awareness Week, carried out with Icas Public Relations.

The breadth of issues covered by the Environment Agency means that it has a huge number of stakeholders. Apart from the public, the agency also has to nurture relationships and partnerships with NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, since 'no one agency, whether it is government or NGO, can achieve change in isolation.'

Business is another crucial target for it to reach: 'Industry and commerce have a major influence on the state of the environment and, therefore, we seek to get them to realise that good environmental practice is good business practice,' says O'Neill.

He adds that the agency also plays an advisory role in informing government decisions on major environmental matters, and works closely with local government.

Part of the communications function's role is the publication of documents such as last week's Environment 2000 and Beyond report. It also looks after the sizeable and popular website (, where hits have peaked at around three million.

This covers everything from 'what's going on in your backyard' to floodplain maps and guidelines on where the agency will prosecute those who are damaging the environment.

The whole area of electronic communications is being embraced by the Environment Agency, which is shortly going to become the first government agency to launch a full e-commerce application by selling fishing licences on its website, as part of the Modernising Government initiative.

The Office of the Rail Regulator

It's been a busy year for the rail regulator, Tom Winsor. He has barely been out of the press as the rail industry's reputation has taken a battering on the grounds of poor services and underinvestment. The ORR looks at the financial side of running Britain's rail network, although following the Paddington and Hatfield rail disasters there have been calls for it to be complemented by a safety watchdog.

The ORR was set up under the Railways Act 1993. Winsor is very much the figurehead of the organisation and, like the other watchdog leaders, is independent of ministerial control.

It is one of the agencies set up to oversee a previously public sector function. Among the main areas of the regulator's statutory functions are the issue of licences to operate trains, networks and stations, the enforcement of competition law and consumer protection.

It has a duty to promote the use and development of the railway network for freight and passengers, oversee the financial position of the holders of network licences, including Railtrack, and keep an eye on the efficiency and economy of the rail services.

The regulator also sponsors a network of Rail Passengers Committees (RPCs), which represent the interests of passengers and act as his eyes and ears.

There are 11 people in the communications department, which is headed by Sue Daniels, and is part of the strategy, planning and communications directorate. Its roles include dealing with the media, and acting as a liaison between companies in the rail sector.

The communications team also looks after the regulator's website (www.rail-reg. and has an internal communications role, which means Daniels is now looking at developing an intranet.

The regulator's library, public register and publication of documents such as the annual report also come under her remit.

Much of the in-house PR team's work revolves around informing the media, and though them, the public, what the role of the Rail Regulator is. Whether or not a rail safety watchdog becomes reality, the recent creation of the Strategic Rail Authority means the team is having to explain the differences between the two, for instance where some passenger-related work has been transferred to the SRA.

It also plays a role in preserving the reputation of the agency as being independent and fair: 'It's important that the office is not seen to be savaged by political considerations, with or without a capital P,' says Daniels.

Having a striking figure heading up the organisation is a bonus for the ORR. Winsor has been in post a year and a half now and is always prepared to speak out when he is unhappy. 'He has a radical agenda of tightening up the network licence which he feels wasn't drawn up as it should have been when Railtrack was privatised, and he's rigorous in taking that forward,' says Daniels.

The extent to which Winsor is aware of his role as spokesperson shows how seriously PR is taken by the organisation.


Telecoms industry regulator Oftel is something of an old lady in the world of regulation, born out of the Conservatives' decision to privatise the telecoms market in 1984. 'In some ways our remit has not really changed, as it's still our goal to ensure quality, choice and value for money via competition,' says director of communications Duncan Stroud, who joined Oftel from the Department of Trade and Industry two years ago.

The five people who make up Oftel's communications team all have individual responsibilities, but they are by no means compartmentalised. 'We may be small, but our ethos is one of sharing skills and experience,' says Stroud.

He claims this approach offers each team member the opportunity to work in all areas, increasing skills and knowledge, while ensuring that on a practical level the PR machine survives temporary absences.

On the basis that 'everyone has a telephone', his team has an unenviably large audience, ranging across consumers, business, the telecoms industry itself and of course, the media.

'When I came from the DTi, I thought the key thing would be working in a very complex and technical area,' says Stroud. 'However, I quickly realised that the real challenge was to be able to explain these complex and technical issues in a clear and simple way.'

This is something his team holds dear, especially in the face of criticisms from some in the industry that Oftel and its director-general David Edmonds have been soft on BT over high-speed internet access and unbundling local loops. Other Oftel decisions such as the Big Number Change have also proved unpopular, especially with business audiences. 'That was about explaining that there were short-term dis-benefits for greater long-term benefits,' says Stroud.

One of the biggest challenges for the PR team is that as an independent regulator Oftel is not looking to serve its own interests. 'Yes, we're here to protect our reputation, but it's more about promoting the work of Oftel and promoting its decisions in a transparent and open way,' adds Stroud.

As the telecoms market expands and digital technology drives convergence, there are changes in the air for Oftel and its PR team. To provide greater transparency for consumers, Oftel's website is currently being redesigned, with a relaunch set for February. Meanwhile, culture secretary Chris Smith's plans for a single regulator across TV, radio and telecoms means that Stroud and his team are unlikely to survive in the current structure much beyond 2003.

Broadcasting Standards Commission

Taking over the reins as communications director for the Broadcasting Standards Commission last October, Donia Moinian could hardly have chosen a less auspicious time. In the same month, BSC chairman Lord Holme of Cheltenham fell on his sword, following details of an extra-marital affair being splashed across the pages of the News of The World, while rumours abounded in anticipation of the Government's Communications White Paper.

With BSC widely viewed as the moral guardian of the nation's TV screens, the former event was highly embarrassing, while the announcement of Ofcom signalled the demise of BSC.

However, according to Moinian, Smith's plans for 'lighter touch regulation' giving broadcasters 'responsible freedoms' is very much in line with BSC recommendations, so his announcement was well-received.

The BSC was created in 1997, from the merger of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council, both set up by Margaret Thatcher.

The major criticisms the organisation has faced from the media include its apparent lack of influence with the BBC and its comparatively poor punitive powers compared to the Independent Television Commission. On occasion, the duplicity of powers shared by BSC and the ITC have also led to embarrassing cases of contradictory rulings - hence the new 'super-regulator'.

But with a current remit covering standards, fairness and privacy in broadcasting, it is easy to forget the role BSC plays in researching and reporting on attitudes to TV and radio. In December, the regulator produced a report, Delete Expletive, outlining public opinion on bad language on TV.

'That was very relevant to broadcasters and quite highly valued by people within the industry,' says Moinian who adds: 'People's values are changing all the time and we have to ensure that we reflect that in our rulings.'

With a brief to cover all UK TV and radio, both terrestrial and satellite, including text, cable and digital services, Moinian, her deputy and the IT manager who hosts the BSC website, have their work cut out.

A 32-strong workforce means that Moinian reports directly to BSC director Stephen Whittle, but in return all communications work is handled in-house and Moinian is responsible for all direct liaison with the media.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in