Any communication professional working in the public sector has always had to have the value for money test in the forefront of their mind on a daily basis. No campaign, initiative or publicity activity could take place without considering the benefits it would bring and weighing that against the cost. This was taking place before the current financial crisis.
There are obvious occasions where the judgement was not right and money was spent on communication activity that did not pass the public test. But despite what the media would have people believe these are few and far between. No senior executive would sign off a communication plan without being sure the activity could be justified. And one thing public sector public relations officers have had to be as well as persuasive is inventive and able to make a little go a very long way.
Recent headlines have criticised police forces for spending money on a range of what they call ‘PR gimmicks’ include a tractor liveried as a police vehicle and money spent on fridge magnets that included local police officer contact details. Behind those headlines are the real stories of how PR officers are trying to find ways to get key information and messages out to the people who need them. It has been essential for communication professionals to look at how people want to receive information, what they need, what they should be told and then use their knowledge to define the requirements.
The force that developed the tractor, which it is important to point out had been donated, was doing so because they have a problem with agricultural crime. You could brand the tractor a gimmick, or you could see it as an innovative way to reach the rural audience that need to understand how they can protect themselves and work with the police.
The force that developed the fridge magnets was doing it as a way to get the key contact details of local officers to the local people who will need them to call for assistance. Why do it in a magnet rather than lower cost leaflets etc? It is clear that the fridge magnets had more chance of surviving in the home for longer; they are more robust and could be kept in a key location. Another example of trying to use creative thought to assist with an age-old communication problem.
The media, and those sending in Freedom of Information requests, never ask for figures on the amount of money spent on leaflets, magazines, posters and other materials that might get produced by public sector organisations. Why? Well, a headline of ‘forces spend £1m on leaflets’ wouldn’t be quite as attention grabbing as a police tractor. But we have seen criticism about police officers using social media particularly Twitter surprising really when all they are doing is talking to people.
What is clear is that all the money that has been, is, and will be spent by public relations and corporate communications teams is always done so with the best intention – which is to provide a service or information to improve people’s lives.
The current financial crisis means that the value for money test will get even tougher. This doesn’t just mean for public relations and communications, it will happen for all kinds of services, operations and frontline activity. People will question whether the existing services are the best they can be and whether they can be changed, improved or developed. They will want an explanation about why the service is needed particularly if it is not something they easily understand or will benefit from.
One key for communication officers will be to make better use of the ‘free’ elements of communication activity. Maximising the opportunities provided by websites, particularly the increasing hyperlocal sites, and the social media are essential to the future. Beyond that will be a return to good old-fashioned talking, taking time to speak to people. In doing this we can still look for ways to be more innovative and creative about sharing the messages.
I am sure when we move into this changed environment where the public sector is streamlined and services are reduced or stretched there will continue to be outrage at money spent in a whole variety of ways. The response needs to be an explanation but not to take a knee-jerk reaction to ending what may be essential services. The important element for communication professionals will be to have the facts, figures and information to justify what is carried out. It is a world where evaluation and research will have to take a more central role in the development of communication. Now we need to embrace the opportunities the future brings.