Mixed forecast for sector but PR has proved its worth

The outlook is mixed as cuts start to bite, but the public sector is hiring again as bodies accept the key role strategic comms plays.

Polly Cziok: head of comms and consultation at the London Borough of Hackney
Polly Cziok: head of comms and consultation at the London Borough of Hackney

In a year that will be dominated by a fractious and unpredictable general election, the outlook for public sector comms is mixed. The austerity agenda continues to present major challenges, but the sector is undoubtedly getting its mojo back, and things are starting to get interesting again.

Back in 2010, when many public sector bodies realised the scale of the financial challenge ahead, comms teams were among the first under the axe. Now it seems the sector is starting to realise what it has lost, and to recognise the importance of strategic comms in delivering major organisational change.

After years of slender pickings for job hunters, the public sector has started hiring again. Comms people are regaining confidence to move into new roles, and there is new buoyancy in the job market. Having said that, in many areas, 2015-16 will be the financial year in which the cuts start to bite in a way that impacts on the general public. Since 2010, local councils have been managing huge reductions to the funding they receive, and many have done so through back office efficiencies and staff cuts, without visibly affecting frontline services.

The media are reporting growth in the economy, and as far as most people are concerned, the cuts have happened. The public has lost its appetite for austerity. The truth is, in many places, the worst is yet to come, and the gap between financial reality and public perception will present the sector with a huge comms challenge. It has undoubtedly been a tough few years, but local government has come though stronger than ever. Having borne a disproportionate level of cuts, ­councils have shown that they are the most flexible, efficient and ­innovative part of the public sector.

The Scottish referendum, Devo Manc and debates about more power to city regions have re-energised local government. This represents a huge opportunity. The next year will see the emergence of ‘the power of place’ as a theme, and the best comms will focus on shaping place narrative and place brand as tools for economic renewal.

I predict a greater shift towards councils buying in ­comms services from each other. Some local authorities have ­responded to austerity by developing commissioning models. Others have responded by commercialising, i.e. selling services and generating income. Public sector comms has always been ­innovative and mutually supportive. Now we are realising that as well as being professional allies, we can forge strong client relationships too.

Predictions for 2015

1. A more buoyant public sector job market.
2. It’s all about the place – as the local devolution debate hots up, expect emphasis on place branding as a tool for renewal.
3. Learning – and buying – from each other. The internal ­market for comms within the public sector is developing fast.

Polly Cziok is head of comms and consultation at the London Borough of Hackney

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