Analysis: Vital PR role emerges in super-regulator's brief

Regulators have a reputation as meddlers, interfering in and constraining the companies they oversee. So how will Ofcom's PR operation cope with its sprawling remit?

At the end of the year, Ofcom is to launch with a remit covering 263 statutory duties and, with the work of five regulators, its oft-used tag of 'super regulator' is well founded.

But while its scope shouldn't be underestimated, neither should the role PR will play if it is to be successful, according to those handling communications for other regulators.

Ofcom director of communications Matt Peacock is now in the final stages of organising his PR operation and has pledged that it will be an integral part of the work Ofcom does - not just for the reputation of the organisation (although that is important), but as a way of improving the quality of its regulation.

Other PROs at regulatory authorities are certain this is how PR for regulators should be viewed. Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) comms director Ceri Evans says it's crucial these are not hollow words and that PR is seen as a vital tool to help it regulate.

One example of this at the SRA was in November last year when the regulator created a new model for franchising passenger services.

'There was a lot of media relations work aimed at the public, but it was also carried out to reassure and explain the issue to operators as well.'

The combination of consumer and B2B communication has real outcomes, says Evans, who adds that for a regulator to be successful its PR unit must 'stay focused on its outcomes and not get distracted by the debate'.

Peacock is adamant that clarity of focus is something observers of Ofcom's PR need not worry about. He believes PR will be vital to achieving its statutory commitment to promoting understanding among the public of the industries it regulates.

But while the public is the key focus, Peacock is wise enough to know that it serves no purpose to get into a public feud with companies. He shies away from phrases such as 'naming and shaming' - the use of negative media campaigns to bring regulatees into line - preferring the more conciliatory approach of being an 'enabler'.

'We are the oxygen not the extinguisher... we are there to enable (companies) to understand what they can do rather than what they shouldn't,' he adds.

Richard Peel, the departing public affairs chief at the Independent Television Commission, (one of the bodies being merged into Ofcom), agrees that the PR operation is core to the organisation achieving its aims.

The ITC's perhaps bland mission statement of 'putting viewers first' meant that the PR team had a vital role in making sure that viewers were properly consulted and informed. An example was consultation work with the public in the area of public service broadcasting. This was driven by the PR function and included regular surveys and seminars with organisations such as the Media Trust as well as public meetings.

'It is important to engage with the public and find out where they are coming from,' Peel added.

One regulator that arguably has so far failed to properly engage with its audience is the Financial Services Authority, which has come under fire from key stakeholders within the City and, most vocally, MPs sitting on the Treasury Select Committee.

Most recently, the FSA's independent complaints commissioner Rosemary Radcliffe joined the critics by telling the committee in October that the organisation was failing to communicate properly, had substantial backlogs in correspondence and had an unhelpful consumer helpline. She even went as far as saying that confusion over complaints was harming the City.

Clearly in the case of the FSA, if the body's reputation is being called into question in such an embarrassingly high-profile way, how can it expect to be taken seriously in the way it regulates? FSA head of press John Fryer says the body's own media evaluation shows that comments by, in particular, the select committee have a damaging affect on its performance in the media, and by implication, a credibility gap opens up that makes it harder for the institution to discharge its responsibilities.

Figures compiled by Echo Research covering October show the body received 711 mentions, of which 48 per cent were favourable, 44 per cent neutral and eight per cent negative. Fryer said: 'If we get the Treasury Select Committee saying something negative then we go down, if we are seen to be doing things we go up.'

But it appears the FSA at least realises there is a problem. Last month the regulator announced a major restructure of its PR function, by merging it with its human resources team. Newly appointed director of people and communications Vernon Everitt spelled out that the move was expected not just to boost the regulator's profile, but its effectiveness (PRWeek, 17 October).

Fryer sums up the difficulties in regulatory PR thus: 'You are always there to be shot at. If you are in that position of authority you will always get some people saying you are not doing enough or you are interfering too much. It's a fine line to tread.'

Ofcom will have to be conscious of this balance if it is to prove its worth in the coming months.

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