Myths about PR in the public sector?

SimonGeneral0 Comments

Sam Oakley has recently started a new PR blog at theukprforum.wordpress.com. I believe Sam works in PR for a local authority so I have a special personal interest in what he has to say.

He recently posted about exploding some public sector PR myths. Having worked most of career in the private sector, and now working in the public sector along with private consultancy, I understand completely some of the points he’s making and have some more thoughts as well:

1. People do or should intrinsically care more about the public sector than than they do about any brand.

I think it’s about the relationship people have with brands. With commercial brands Sam rightly notes that choice is an important factor in the brand-customer relationship, but where the supplier is a monopoly brand-customer relationships do exist, but in a more strained context.

The issue here is that I think most public sector organisations (not just local government) don’t have a strategic view about how they want to manage their brand to develop the brand-customer relationship. And by brand I mean my definition that includes how the brand looks (visual identity), how it sounds (written style) and most importantly how it acts (behaviour – how the organisation ensures decision making at every level is consistent with the brand’s values). Too many people in the public sector think brand equals logo, but that’s another story.
Most public sector organisations are a long way away from thinking strategically about their brand, and even further away from being able to deliver brand values through their complicated management structures (both on the officer and member side).

2. The public sector are good steady clients.

Sam’s spot on with this one. The pressures of public scrutiny and politics on budget planning usually mean either a rush to spend budgets early in the financial year (as there’s little confidence it won’t be taken away later in the year if not spent) or a rush at the end of the financial year to spend anything that has been squirrelled away from the accountants. This applies to most areas I think, not just PR.

3. Local Government is the slowest organisational structure on earth.

In some cases this is probably right, although in my experience things can happen with surprising (and indeed uncomfortable) pace. And working in PR you have to have the ability to handle the very fast evolving situations as expertly as the slow burners.

4. The public sector needs the publicity so it works in PR right from the start right?

In my experience I think it depends on the organisation. Where PR is seen as an integral part of the organisation it gets considered at the appropriate stage in the project. So it’s more about the organisational culture (and often whether it’s internally focussed, or more externally/customer focussed). This in turn often depends on the experience of council staff – those with previous experience in the private sector tend to think about communications impacts earlier than council lifers.

5. Local Authorities understand the local news agenda.

I think Sam’s being a bit harsh in his commentary on this one. In my experience a good PR team with strong local media links will understand, and in many cases drive, the local news agenda.

Where the council works against the media in a confrontational way I suspect this wouldn’t be the case, but the nature of the media relations in this situation may be a sympton of a more internally-focussed culture, which would suggest less understanding of the news agenda and what is actually interesting to the public.

Local authority PR isn’t seen as a sexy area to work in, but I maintain the skills and experience a marketing and PR person can get working in a local authority are extremely valuable in the private sector – I’ve blogged this before and the more experience in the public sector I get, the more I believe it.

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