Sunday, 21 September 2008


Public services and PR - is it OK to pay?

That was the crux of the debate in this Times article on Friday:

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:

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.


xxNapoleon Solo said...

Interesting post Laura - very thought provoking.

As someone who has also worked in journalism and PR, I think there is a role for it in the public sector, but not the role as outlined by Mrs Lewis-Jones.

She seems to have a massively inflated opinion of herself and does a tremendously bad job of defining what a PR is and does! You're right to hammer her!

I worked within the NHS, which now operates with an internal market system where hospitals that meet targets and budget requirements get more money.

A key part of that is patient choice, where people are given options about where they want to have their treatment by their GP.

Yes the best PR is doing a good job, but if you publicise the fact your hospital is doing a good job, more people stand to see that publicity and choose to go there, which leads to more funding.

I think that is vital if said hospital is still going to be able to offer that great service in a year's time.

Another area where PRs can make a difference is when hospitals are developing or changing their services, which seems to happen all the time with massive reform after reform.

In my experience, these reforms would often be on a massive and incredibly complex scale. They would also have to go through consultation with the public, which means consultation documents etc, that without a person who is skilled in communication to write them, would just read as so much gobbledygook.

Finally, I think they can serve as a useful link between an organisation and the media.

If a journalist contacted me with an enquiry, I would get them a comment back, on deadline, that answered their question.

That is because I understood the importance of the media to my hospital and the job that journalist was doing.

Again in my experience, the vast majority of hospital staff do not - especially when it comes to deadlines - and in many cases, actually dismiss it as irrelevant and do not reply at all. I lost count of the amount of times I had to chase and chase doctors or the chief exec for comments!

Finally, while the vast majority of journalists were - like you - fair and balanced and nice, some of them were absolute bastards looking to hammer a hospital for the least thing. I could tell you some shocking tales, and will if you ask!

If my hospital trust had done something wrong, I had no problem with saying so, but if some wanker was looking to fuck them over so they would have a good story, I think they did need defending.

Sorry, I didn't mean to go on so much!

I am surprised with the response because I hated at least half of my year in PR and left as soon as I could.

But I still think there is a need for it.

xxNapoleon Solo said...

I said finally twice! Doh!!

Kevin Matthews said...

Excellent post.
It's almost like I know who and what inspired this.
I entirely agree with your point that a local gvt press office's function is to check detail and disseminate information. They are not, and should not be spin doctors, getting themselves involved in the murkiness of politics and fighting against town hall criticism.
And why is that local gvt PR are kitting themselves out with as much video kit as the BBC? It's a bit late for these failed journalists to be using public money to have a second try at a proper job. :)

Lalalaura said...

I come at it from a different angle to xxnapoleon solo, because the PR practice I worked in was consumer focused and so I looked after airlines and credit cards and the like.

Which meant we had a commercial interest to defend - we didn't pretend to be neutral.

I find it depressing to see public servants and members of the civil service making up the agenda as they go along.

Or at least that's how it can feel.

There is one press department we work with which I think is excellent, and that's the fire service. Their relaxed attitude to giving us access to the crews that do the job helps our reports, and our relationship with them.

If only they were all like that.