Spreading the word on curative medical treatments, tracking down an assailant or preserving the environment and our national heritage – these are just some examples of key drivers for those working in public sector public relations where pay doesn’t match its equivalent counterpart in the private sector. What it does compete on is being part of a cause that drives to do good. Those that work there say the work/life balance and pastoral benefits are strong and the opportunities to be creative are unparalleled.
What is it like to work in public sector PR?
Elaine Parr, head of public relations and communications at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, says there is nothing like it: "You feel closer to the cause and see that you are having an impact on communities through the work you do." Recently, Parr’s team put together an article about the hospital introducing a new procedure using the hospital’s robotic surgical system which could dramatically change the way cancer patients were treated. "The story had such an impact that our oncologists got queries after people read about it." Getting the word out there about new ideas on how to treat and cure cancer is what Parr refers to as "worthwhile stories that impact on people’s lives." It is public relations for the greater good.
It’s a sentiment that Catherine Feast, head of communications at the Police Federation of England and Wales, agrees with. "If you work in the public sector you have really got to believe in it. Personally, I get more satisfaction from knowing I have helped deliver a service than for example supporting the sales of washing powder!"
Parr has been in her post for seven years and says the job continues to be hugely varied: "We cover external and internal communications. The work is aligned to the objectives of the Trust and our aim is to communicate the great work that is being done at The Royal Marsden."
It’s a wide remit, explains Parr who spends a great deal of time talking to patients and clinicians alike, but she says it is a position of great ‘privilege.’ "We are working with international leaders in their field and it is wonderful to share their stories."
Feast says that at the Police Federation her job includes running a team which covers everything from digital comms and membership engagement to campaigns and events, fighting for better pay and protection of officers and lobbying government. "The police are not allowed to strike so we are there to support and campaign for better working rights and conditions. One of our current campaigns is about getting increased sentences for those who assault not just officers but other emergency service workers and if that succeeds it will be hugely satisfying."
What key skills are required?
Creativity: Working in public sector public relations is also about being hugely creative because budgets are being stretched and in a period of austerity many departments are being slimmed down too. Parr says: "You have to make the most of what you have. You must think how to use your content in different ways. It’s really important to understand the organisation you work for, so you can be creative."
Feast says: "There are no big budgets or huge bonuses and it’s not too gimmicky. With austerity measures teams have been merged and you have to think of ways to cross-pollinate stories and share resources."
Solid writing skills: Storytelling is an integral part of public relations and much of it is embedded in written format. Parr says those that work in the sector need to have "outstanding written skills, an excellent grasp of grammar and the ability to analyse a lot of information." She adds: "You need to be able to identify the hooks and turn that into an education for the audience."
Feast says the requirements have changed too as much content is now directly streamed to the audience via social media platforms or video clips. "We used to have to go via the media but that has changed so we can access our audiences directly."
Lengthy press releases or in-depth articles are moving out of favour. Feast says: "Our audiences don’t have time to read that. We need content that is short and visual – video is playing an ever-growing role."
She adds that pictures are so powerful that they can often be stronger than the written word too: "A picture of an assaulted officer gets a lot of traction."
Negotiation and diplomacy: Feast says both these skills are highly valued in public sector public relations. She adds that ‘doing it right’ is having a seat at the executive table by being part of strategic decision making.
Being bold and assertive is crucial too. Feast says: "You’re not paid to be a yes person and while some might not like what you say or want to hear the advice your role is to challenge and be that critical friend. But it must be done in the right way, so tact and diplomacy are key."
How can people get a public sector PR role?
Parr says with writing being such an important skill it is invaluable to get experience: "When I was at university I wrote for the student paper but there are lots of ways you can show your skills – press releases or writing a blog for your local sports club, for example."
She adds, this offers "some evidence that your skills have had a practical application." Feast says that qualifications are valued and for those switching from journalism to public relations a diploma in the discipline is attractive. "Experience does count for a lot more though. If I was choosing between two exact candidates, one with a pure qualification and one that only had the experience, the latter would get the job."
Internships and work experience are another route in. The Police Federation is currently looking to work with local colleges to offer those students a chance to see what the job entails.
Digital and social skills are also sought after. Parr says: "We hired two new members recently that have great video and digital skills. For those that are mid-career it is a question of keeping up with those current trends."
What opportunities does the career offer?
Parr says that whilst the salary may not be as attractive as the equivalent in the private sector you are well looked after in other ways. "There is a good focus on work/life balance at The Royal Marsden. For example, we are very supportive of those undertaking personal and professional development. Our ‘Because you matter’ programme focuses on managing your work/life balance and looking after your mental health for example. Things like this make a big difference."
Being aligned with the cause is a key motivator. Parr recalls her days at Avon and Somerset police when there was a case of a young student who, following a fight, went to sleep and never woke up. "He died the following day from bleeding around his brain. We put out a press appeal for witnesses and the next day the assailant turned himself in. It’s those kinds of experiences that demonstrate the importance of what we are doing."
For those looking to make a positive contribution for causes that are heartfelt and whose purpose is the communities they serve then public sector public relations can offer a career that fulfils those ambitions. It can be highly competitive, and experience is often valued over qualifications but having both offers a competitive edge with preference given to those that not only have solid writing skills but can also demonstrate they can manipulate content for purpose and utilise the digital platforms that are available.