Public sector: 'Pressure' will be the watchword for 2017

If 2016 has taught us to expect the unexpected, it has also signalled the need to be prepared for further pressure, both on budgets and from our audiences.

Expect pressure on budgets and from audiences, warns Paul Mylrea
Expect pressure on budgets and from audiences, warns Paul Mylrea

It’s been a funny old year. It’s not only experts that have taken a beating, but pollsters as well. Think Brexit and Trump. Predicting the future is proving to be far tougher than it looks. So it’s challenging to be asked to write about the key issues facing public sector comms in 2017. Am I going to regret this article in a year’s time?

I have just read a fascinating book called Superforecasting, by Wharton Business School professor Philip Tetlock. In it, he shares a 20-year study showing how ordinary people, using some simple methods and the wisdom of crowds, have outperformed even professional intelligence analysts. So, having cribbed these techniques (and tapped a few minds wiser than mine) to turn myself into an instant superforecaster, here goes.

The first – and obvious – point is that the pressure on resources has never been more intense. People are being asked to undertake more for less. Money is tight and the vote for Brexit, as we saw from November’s Budget, puts an extra dose of uncertainty in the mix. Things will not be getting better soon on the money front, and don’t expect any certainty on our EU negotiations either. It will be 2018 before any details emerge from the fog. So if you were hoping for a big pay increase (not that anyone was), then I confidently predict that you’re not going to get one.

What about recruiting and retaining the right quality of staff? There are certainly going to be challenges. People are already predicting that recruitment will be made worse by more UK citizens seeking jobs abroad, as well as fewer migrants coming in. But with a couple of years before there is any certainty about the shape of Brexit, this issue will not affect 2017.

That still leaves us with the continuing pressure on PR budgets, coupled with the relentless pull from the public for more flexible, accessible and high-quality services. Two areas where this pressure is going to tell are in the NHS, where I confidently predict (not much of a risk!) that we will face almost monthly stories of crisis and financial meltdown; and local councils, struggling with huge demands and limited budgets.  

In a post-Brexit, post-Trump world, the importance of understanding and engaging your audience has never been more in focus. It’s no longer business as usual. So the opportunities for nimble, creative comms have never been greater.

Expect more comms specialists involved at an earlier stage in strategic discussions about service delivery, working out how to use comms to manage demand. Expect many more low- and zero-budget campaigns, in particular in local and regional comms teams. Social media will remain king, forcing PR specialists to hone their video and audio skills.

Also, driven both by the pressure on budgets and the decline of traditional local media, expect more comms teams to generate their own content – like the University of Hertfordshire’s information-rich, live-streamed broadcast on clearing day this year. Lights, camera, action: it’s public-sector showtime.

Paul Mylrea is director of communications at the University of Cambridge

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