When communicators are put under the spotlight it can feel really uncomfortable. There have been two recent reports about the cost of police communication staff and the cost of council communication staff that have hit the headlines, including in the mainstream media, and have put a focus on the behind-the-scenes teams. Those of us working in public sector comms try to ensure we stay behind the cameras so we can focus on the job in hand. We support the front line of the organisation and that is where the effort goes. Recent events have become an unnecessary distraction.
After five years of financial constraint and budget reductions, some of the figures mentioned can, at first sight, appear eye-watering. When people are struggling with low pay the £1m-plus figures spent on comms teams may feel like a world away. However, it is easy to look at the cost of running a comms team as an unnecessary burden on organisations. Critics also attempt to work out how many frontline staff this money could fund. This will continue to be the case if as communicators we fail to clearly demonstrate what these departments deliver.
The role of public sector communicators has nothing to do with ‘spin’ and reputation management and everything to do with customer service and improving access to information. Within policing, the communications team ensures vital information about public safety, security, crime and disorder is shared with communities. It is work that has led directly to criminals being arrested, missing children being found and emergency warnings issued, keeping people safe. I know the same will be true of colleagues working in local authorities who are ensuring vital services are easy for people to access.
Unfortunately as PR officers we have been poor in actually selling our contribution both to the organisation and to the wider community. The vision of the CIPR clearly says it aims "to be at the heart of a professional and diverse public relations profession that organisations, government and the public understand and value". The recent articles and some of the post-Leveson coverage have shown us that there is still a huge amount to be done to get somewhere near achieving this vision.
It is for all of us working in public sector comms to change this, particularly as we face further cuts. We have to be able to explain what we do, show people the benefits and demonstrate the impact. Evaluation has always been a difficult thing to do and as teams have been further stretched it is often neglected or forgotten. PRs rush from one project to another in an attempt to keep delivering, often without ever prioritising evaluation.
We need to take our own advice and make a concerted effort to present a new face of public sector communication. We must grasp the opportunity of being in the spotlight, and have the information and analysis to demonstrate what is being delivered for the public. Without this we face more uncomfortable headlines when there is actually a good story to tell.
Amanda Coleman is director of corporate comms at Greater Manchester Police