EDITORIAL: Sheffield acts on service delivery

This week's news from Sheffield City Council - that after a two-year experiment, the just-filled head of marcoms role is to retain direct responsibility for the local authority's customer services function - will give cheer to more than just the one communicator to land that job.

All those working in PR can take heart from the bold, pioneering step Sheffield's municipal management has taken in the way it organises relations with its public.

It is too early to describe this as a trend, Sheffield being better termed a beacon in this respect. Despite the comparative disciplinary latitude given to council PROs over those in the commercial world, Sheffield remains the only local authority to take this step in recognition of the impact service delivery can have on the way an organisation is perceived by its key audiences.

Despite its exceptional nature, the logic of the Sheffield decision is unambiguous. There is no purer relationship with that category of people whose opinions matter to an organisation than being the first point of contact for complaints and the central locus of feedback about policy, delivery and performance.

Including customer relations in the communications function does three things. Firstly, it lifts treating customers seriously to the top of an organisation's agenda. Secondly, it creates a seamless feedback loop so information on public perception reaches the management and can inform other decisions. And third, it signals an acceptance that while media relations is an important part of public relations and a crucial skill set for any PRO, the media is only a conduit, a means to an end.

The end itself, of course, is changing the way a defined group of people think and behave. In this respect, Sheffield's move promotes the ultimate target of public relations practice to a central role in how PR strategy is drafted.

People tire of repeated messages of success from local authorities if these messages do not chime with their own experiences. For public relations to work as a strategic discipline - influencing the behaviour of managers rather than simply polishing it for the news media - there must be no separation between the delivery of a service and the way that delivery is communicated.

And, of course, this does not just apply to the public sector. Without exception in UK private sector companies, customer services has its own status as a general management function rather than as an adjunct to the communications department. It is now unimaginable that, say, a FTSE 100 company would brief its top PRO to manage the thousands of call-centre staff solving customer queries. But if it works for the half a million-plus people in a city the size of Sheffield, it can work elsewhere.

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