What public relations does next…

Posted on 07/07/2010


It’s been exactly two months since the last Rambling… and things are very different now.

So it seems like a good time to look again at the threats and opportunities to the PR industry under the new government.

As I warned in my last posts (and as the PRCA confirmed), the worst news for the media industry would be a victory for the party which pledges to cut the deepest.

In recent days, the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition has reaffirmed it’s consideration of 40 per cent cuts in departmental savings.  In fact, for marketing this is largely academic as there has been a 100 per cent cut in immediate budgets – with a freeze on marketing activity until it has been approved by the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group (how the government’s advisor on architecture’s love your caretaker competition got through this process though I don’t know).

But add to this cut the closing or downscaling of many quangos and, while many may not be too upset by the principles of smaller government, the effects on jobs in the public and private sector are starting to be felt.

Already there are freezes on recruitment of marketing professionals in most government-funded organisations.  And the cuts are starting to bite into the private sector too.  Last week, one regional marketing agency went under – taking 11 jobs, a major publicly funded event and a supply chain’s cash with it.  The market leader in public sector PR – Kindred – is also looking at a major restructure if rumours are to be believed.

In fact, with cuts now spreading in all directions, it’s becoming worryingly easy to see how the impact of public sector cuts will be felt on the private sector.  And given the new government hopes many public sector redundancies will be offset by private sector growth, the plan to stimulate this growth is not only unclear, but seemingly based solely on a stable tax environment and is certainly poorly communicated.

But this last point hints at the opportunities…

The government is still communicating.  But is it communicating effectively?

It seems that most government communications is coming direct from press offices – such as the glut of ‘world cup tie in’ stories like this one from the Department for Communities and Local Government.  While the best press officers in the business are based in government, they are more used to briefings, issuing news stories, policy announcements and crisis management, rather than implementing ongoing activity which works alongside other marketing disciplines to deliver behavioural change.And that is what many of the new government’s programmes are looking for.

From the Big Society, to the expansion of Teach First, through to encouraging a more entrepreneurial culture, communications can play a vital part in the success of the new government’s programme.

Delivering these changes and ensuring success is where communications agencies can play an important role.  Driven (as good agencies are) by a thirst for creativity and measured by client targets and performance indicators, agencies can make a difference.

So this is what the industry – led by the PRCA, Chartered Institute of Marketing and other bodies, including the government’s own Central Office of Information (COI), need to be celebrating: our creativity, our passion for using communications for good and our effectiveness in delivering tangible behavioural change.

If we don’t, a vacuum will develop and marketing will be forgotten.

Yet the industry seems strangely silent.  Maybe it is worried about rocking the new government’s boat.  Maybe there is lots of behind the scenes discussions going on.  Or maybe it is feeling guilty for the excesses of communications during the New Labour years.

No-one doubts that there were some excesses and the old government was too quick to issue a marketing brief just to generate media coverage or get a message out into the public domain. But it’s time to move on.

We need to celebrate how accountable communications can help deliver a real public benefit – and have a positive impact on implementing government policy.

But we need to do it quickly before the skills and expertise in public sector communications are all diverted into work for the private sector – or are lost to the industry altogether.