Let comms teams set the agenda in the public sector to increase trust

Public sector communications - both the PR professionals themselves and the organisations they represent - hold the key to trust in our institutions.

Trust in public sector institutions is in short supply, argues Jennifer Ogunleye
Trust in public sector institutions is in short supply, argues Jennifer Ogunleye

If the public sector wants to change the reported demise of trust and positive public opinion, it’s time it let its communicators set the agenda.

Even before the 2016 Brexit referendum, the verdict was in; the electorate no longer trust experts, like the economists who provide us with our census, the scientists trying to combat climate change, or the medical community’s credibility in the vaccines and autism debate.

And, as non-traditional media such as social networks, podcasts and influencers disrupt and encroach on the mainstream, experts aren’t the only ones being rejected. The decline of traditional media as a watchdog for public-sector organi-sations and the change in how people absorb information has had a knock-on effect on how the sector must operate.

This is all the more urgent in the wake of high-profile crises such as the Garden Bridge scandal and the Grenfell fire tragedy.

I watched with particular interest how the investigation into Westminster councillor Robert Davis played out in the media. Such issues make a case that public-sector comms professionals and their skills are more valuable than ever.

This needs to be recognised by the PR industry and the public sector, and the reasonable and healthy two-way flow between PRs and journalists must be prioritised if we are to avoid the risk of messages not cutting through at a news level.

The answer is not in the hands of public-sector PRs alone. Our organisations must operate as transparently and inclusively as possible. Authorities need to build trusting relationships with stakeholders, who can become ambassadors rather than critics. In addition to benefiting the organisations, it would ensure a pipeline of high-quality talent to the industry.

The perception that those in the public sector are slow-paced does a disservice. These communicators are culturally considerate and resilient in a crisis, and remain creative, strategic and people-centred while navigating layers of bureaucratic sign-off procedures. They balance the often competing objectives of leaders in charged environments, the need for transparency with other priorities, regulatory and trade organisations, and straddling the line between public and private sectors.

With the rise of CSR and socially-conscious branding, the private sector is already on board. Brands must now live up to the scrutiny of the discerning Millennial, whose buying power is forecast to grow to 35 per cent of annual spending by 2030, increasing demand for the diverse and transferable attributes of those used to operating in the public-sector ecosystem.

I’ve had the privilege of working in partnership with these professionals, across policing and emergency services, local government and more. They ensure their organisations uphold practices and decision-making to the highest standards.

Look at your organisation through your communicators’ eyes and you might just have the answer to countering mis-information, ‘fake news’ and the decline of public trust.

Jennifer Ogunleye is the former financial services media officer – planning, transportation and digital infrastructure – for City of London Corporation 

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