The tools and channels we use are evolving faster than ever, but, in this age of austerity, it’s important that we find time focus on the fundamental skills and purpose of our profession. What is it that PR people are good at? What sets us aside from our colleagues in other parts of the communications profession?
Well, we can write, we can certainly talk, and most importantly, we can tell a story.
One of the key themes that came out of the CIPR Local Public Service Group Conference this month was the importance of narrative. We posed some tough questions for our speakers. How can we communicate cuts to a recession-weary general public? How to engage staff in tough times? How can we get our message out through a hostile media climate?
Our keynote speakers, from Polly Toynbee to Ipsos MORI’s Ben Page, and many of our panellists, came back with very similar answers: get your story straight and tell it well, be clear about what you are doing, be honest, be truthful, and don’t be afraid to admit that it hurts.
That last one will be a challenge for many. A decade of sustained investment in public service has meant there is now a whole generation of public sector communicators, as well as public sector leaders, with no experience of delivering bad news.
We all know that that there will be no way for the public sector to get through the next few years without making some very tough decisions about the future of local services, and the public service communicators who survive the cuts will have difficult messages to deliver.
The only credible way to deliver these messages with will be with absolute clarity, with a clear narrative about how and why the decisions were made, and with empathy about the effects they will have.
If services are being reduced, don’t pretend they’re not. Acknowledge the impact the changes will have on local people. When campaign groups spring up trying to defend the services they use, understand their motivations and work with them when you can. When it comes to staff communications, don’t forget that frontline staff will be talking to the public about the cuts so they will need to fully understand what’s happened and why.
Good PR won’t make the cuts any easier, but if we do our jobs well, we can ensure the public is better informed about how decisions are made, what the changes will be, and how they can make their voices heard.
The challenges ahead will test the mettle of the most experienced PR people in the sector. Those who came in during the good times will have an even bigger mountain to climb.
That’s why it is vital that, as a profession, we stay focused on what we do best and remember that, however fast the world the world is changing, no matter what channels we use, we will stand or fall on the strength of the stories we tell.
Polly Rance is head of media and external relations at the London Borough of Hackney