Actually, PR should be proud that budgets are rising amid falling public spending

Just as popes involve themselves in Catholic liturgy and bears use wooded areas for activities I don't deign discuss in public, tabloid newspapers like to have a good pop at the PR profession every now and again.

And so it came to pass that on Saturday, an article appeared on the Sun website entitled Just do your job: Police forces and councils splash more and more cash on growing £100m PR war chest while culling frontline staff. It calculates average increases in PR spend at 250 public bodies at 12 per cent over the last five years - bucking a broader trend of huge public sector cuts.

"Police and council bosses have splashed out £100m in a bid to improve their image while culling frontline staff," the article starts, with the first two images in the piece showing examples of awareness-raising campaigns by police forces - not exactly campaigns designed to "improve their image".

Such pieces are part of a long-running tradition. Plenty of similar stories on local councils, NHS bodies, the BBC and other public organisations having the temerity to have comms operations have also been written in previous years. In the early years of his rule, the Roman Emperor Trajan was criticised for the same thing - okay, I might be making that up, but my point is that these stories have been around for yonks.

It's not just public sector PR either - in the face of a crisis, companies get flack for putting out statements on the grounds that doing so somehow signals that they're not investing time in solving the issue at hand.

Industry responds

PR, in short, often gets a raw deal in the press. On which note, back to the Sun story, and comments elicited from the CIPR and the PRCA.

The CIPR said the Sun's piece "fails to highlight the frontline work undertaken by communications professionals in supporting victims of crime and locating offenders" and is a case of stats being misused. The PRCA's response is similar, with director-general Francis Ingham calling it "as ill-informed as it is ill-conceived", and expressing support for public sector comms pros.

Both responses cite Greater Manchester police comms supremo Amanda Coleman, who is involved with both organisations, and she told the CIPR that the past year had shown that PR is not just a "nice to have" but is "essential to having effective public services". After all, public sector PR increasingly plays a role in preventing crime, fire or other public risks, and in helping the public find the help it needs without adding to the burden on stretched frontline services.

Now, it'd be amiss if these two organisations didn't put out a statement, but here's a question: do articles like that in the Sun really matter?

I think they need to be taken with a healthy pinch of salt. After all, is any organisation's CEO really going to stop thinking it's worth investing in PR because of an article in the Sun or, another day, the Mail or the Express or whoever else? I would suggest not.

(As an aside, here's a worry - if PR's portrayal in mainstream media is always negative, that could damage attempts to recruit from outside of the industry's regular talent pools, and that's a worry given the industry's increasing awareness of its lack of diversity.)

'Respect PR's value'

In Ingham and new CIPR president Sarah Hall, the industry has two figures who will robustly defend it (the fact that the two evidently get along, and that Hall is pledging to be more proactive about this, helps on this front).

As Hall put in response to a further question from PRWeek: "It is entirely unacceptable for a national newspaper to distort and misrepresent the value of modern communications. At times of major incidents, communication from the police and emergency services helps to save lives and bring the situation under control. The strategic and professional approach taken by those in the public sector should be acknowledged and respected."

PRWeek agrees with Hall on this - that's why emergency services comms team were named our Top of the Year at the end of 2017.

PR should be proud of the value it provides organisations and society as a whole. And crucially, the industry should take huge confidence in the fact that increasing its budgets is seen as a useful investment by public bodies in cash-strapped times.

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