When I moved to a marketing and PR job in the public sector, colleagues at the time were surprised. It was seen as a backward move and not one that would enhance my CV.
At the time I had very good personal reasons for making the move, but more importantly I also saw it as a good opportunity to broaden my marketing and PR experience.
A year and a half on and I’m absolutely convinced it was the right move. The experience I’ve gained so far has been invaluable, and I’d go so far as to say I think every marketing or PR professional would benefit from spending some time working in the public sector.
So why do I say this? Well it all boils down to the environment in which a public sector marketer has to work.
Complex audiences and messages
Most private sector marketers are used to working in an organisation where objectives are straightforward to define. Even complex matrix marketing organisations can usually simplify their objectives into a few sentences. In listed companies it often boils down to generating shareholder returns.
The contrast with the public sector is stark. Local authorities in England provide a diverse range of services, stretching from rubbish collection, through social services to events and tourism promotion. Each of these services has its own marketing and PR needs.
As a marketer it’s a constant juggling act to reach different groups with relevant messages about services. And it’s not enough to go for the easy to reach segments. Local authorities need to be able to communicate effectively with people who mainstream marketing doesn’t reach. For example those who don’t speak English, can’t read or those who just don’t want to be communicated with.
Before I worked for a local authority I had no idea how the role of politicians worked with the role of staff at a council.
The real challenge is that there are effectively two management reporting lines – through the staff management structure and through the political leaders. Whilst the direction of both groups is broadly similar, there are sometimes tensions between these two groups, especially on points of detail.
This dual reporting structure exists and is a challenge for marketers to operate in – especially when developing strategies and signing off creative.
Budgets and priority
Marketing in the public sector often isn’t seen as a priority, but communicating effectively is becoming recognised as more important. For example whilst crime is probably coming down generally, fear of crime is rising. Effective marketing can help address fear of crime, but only as part of a mix of measures.
There is a danger that marketing or communications are seen as or used as a sticking plaster, and core underlying issues aren’t addressed. But leaving this aside marketing and PR are becoming more and more important in the public sector, which can only be good news for budgets.
The public sector is a fascinating communications environment in which to work. It’s a cliche, but each day is completely different and often unpredictable. Strategies and tactics often have to be worked out in a few hours, and campaigns delivered within very short deadlines.
The experience of marketing and PR in the public sector would be a great development for anyone seeking a rounded set of skills and a new avenue on their CV. I had my doubts, but my advice to anyone considering it would be go for it.