Public services and PR - is it OK to pay?
That was the crux of the debate in this Times article on Friday: http://tinyurl.com/4ktkdr
Unsurprisingly, Elisabeth Lewis-Jones, President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, thinks it is not only OK, but essential that we pay up for PR.
During her lengthy explanation she said: "It is not political propaganda.
"This is about two-way communication, there is complete transparency, and if anyone has a problem with that they can give their opinions.
"This is about giving people information so that they can make a choice and make a decision.
"Public relations is a business activity that should underpin an organisation’s business plan. Public relations professionals work with key people to decide how an organisation will develop, how it can improve and become more successful."
The opening soundbite is text book. But it doesn't matter because her editorial adversary, Matthew Elliott, Chief executive of the campaign group TaxPayers’ Alliance, is coming right back at her.
His one-liner dismisses her: "The best PR is doing a good job in the first place."
Now, at this point I should own up: I worked in PR for 18 months, and I don't anymore, because I'm now a journalist.
But the debate here, is not the worth or ethics of PR in general - it focuses on tax payer funded public relations work for public institutions; the police, NHS, local government.
So why do we employ press officers in the public sector?
Lewis-Jones knows, let's return to her words for a moment: "Public relations is a business activity that should underpin an organisation’s business plan.
"Public relations professionals work with key people to decide how an organisation will develop, how it can improve and become more successful."
Bear in mind that a public relations practitioner is, and I cite my own experience at this point, a person who is not required to sit any exams or hold any academic qualifications in order to do their job. PR is not brain surgery, it's not law, it's not even the possession of business acumen.
We should be worried when Lewis-Jones tells us that PR's see their role as deciding how an organisation will develop, especially if this is a massively complicated concern, such as an NHS trust.
At what point did PR becoming policy making? And when did the public start electing its council press officers, its fire service spokespeople and its LEA PRs?
Back to Elliott and his doctrine of "doing a good job" - he's not talking about PRs - he's talking about doctors, teachers, planning officers - trained professionals, and experts.
I think he's onto something, just imagine letting these people get on with their jobs.
But we don't, because there's a layer of press office guarding them from the public and the media.
I find this insulting, to the public, the press, and the professionals themselves.
It assumes that a doctor can be considered fit to care for a patient in that he can prescribe drugs and carry out life saving treatment, but he can't be trusted to talk about what he does without jeopardising his job.
If he can't speak for himself then should he be out on ward rounds? If he is liable to say something that compromises patient confidentiality does he understand the Hippocratic oath? If not shouldn't he should be struck off?
By inserting this "communications" safety net to save institutional blushes are we not depriving ourselves of a useful Darwinian process of selection? In other words does public service PR protect the professionally weak? Potentially.
Lewis-Jones' next statement is symptomatic of the problem: "If we take the case of Ofsted, the money is unlikely to be spent only on press officers, but also on internal communications so that everyone within Ofsted is aware of what is happening and those that are going into schools are aware of the key messages or key information they need to impart and receive."
If it takes the PR team to tell an Ofsted inspector what "information they need to impart and receive" when they visit a school then, really what is the point of sending the inspector in at all? Why not just send the PR posse down to the school gates with a clipboard?
As for claims of transparency, I'd direct your attention to this inspired Freedom of Information request by the Oxford Mail: http://tinyurl.com/3sow9h
In my short experience I have already worked with public service press officers who think it is their job to defend their institution: It's not.
It shouldn't make a blind bit of difference to them whether the story is positive, or negative, as long as the facts quoted are accurate.
But then, they would just be simply passing on information, and I suppose underpinning an organisation’s business plan, developing an entire borough council's future and making the fire service more successful are all much more lucrative professional pastimes.
*With thanks to David Cushman for this glorious piece of etymology.