Alex Aiken: The Party's over, preparing public sector PR for the downturn

We appear to live for the moment in public PR land of plenty. It's reported that the new Chief Executive of HM Revenue & Customs was accompanied to a media interview by three press officers.

Alex Aiken
Alex Aiken

Birmingham Council admits that their PR lacks strategic direction, despite being the best resourced in local government. A handful of local authorities appear to wish to behave like newspaper barons, rather than public servants by churning out fortnightly newspapers.

These examples may be exceptional, but all government communications has had 15 good years of virtual continuous expansion. We've moved into internal communications, social media and now social marketing. From the massive Change4Life campaigns of central government to publications provided by district councils, public information has never had it so good.

Times are now changing. It's inconceivable that the next government, of whatever party will look to expand or even maintain the current scale of government communications. There will be less capacity and perversely a greater need to explain what government is doing, as difficult decisions are made.

Meeting the challenge of working in a more sceptical climate with fewer resources will require greater skill than has been shown to date by many heads of communication. They will need to deliver high quality targeted campaigns based on an assessment of where public communications can have the greatest impact, rather than just relying on the quantity of communications.

Fundamentally, we need to change in four ways.

First, take an axe to the waste that exists in government PR. There are too many publications saying too little, too many pointless press releases and a cyber galaxy of vanity websites. Each local authority and every agency and department must audit their output to understand what works to move their audiences.

Second, work together on outcomes. The best government communications should help people live longer, healthier lives because citizens are empowered to make the right choices in life. Working out where we can have the most positive impact is a critical task for communicators and one that is too often carried out in bureaucratic silos. It should delivered with our public service partners. Councils must work with the police to help make people safer, utilise health service campaigns to achieve social service objectives and partner with the DWP to publicise training and employment opportunities.

Third, campaign across local authority boundaries. Core campaigns on issues like value for money, street cleansing and adoption could be designed collectively and implemented locally, pooling costs and maximising results.

Finally, evaluate everything. Use the savings from redundant publications to critically evaluate communications and utilise the COI's excellent new work on how to test the effectiveness of campaigns.

The recession, and the straightened circumstances of the public sector have not changed the rules of public service PR, but they have made it more important that we follow them by planning, researching and evaluating, rather than rushing to implement.


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