Big public sector organisations need to speak to the people they serve. That is a fact. They find a whole host of ways of doing it in a bid to ensure they reach everyone. It is a thankless task for communication staff. Communication is always the first thing to blame when things aren’t seen to be working and no-one will advocate spending money on what is often labelled as ‘spin’.
The consultation document Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity from the Department of Communities and Local Government highlights this difficult situation. Councils and other public bodies need to tell people things but how do they do this without significant costs? And with the impending Comprehensive Spending Review and expected cuts the need for value for money is even more critical.
At the centre of the consultation is the debate that has been raging about the impact local authority newspapers have had on the ‘free press’. The document states “..the free press should not face competition from a local authority publication passing itself off as a newspaper”. Yet it also recognises that “Good, effective publicity, aimed at improving public awareness of the councils’ activities is quite acceptable.”
Individuals and organisations have until the 10th of November to make their views know through email at email@example.com . However, it raises some broader issues about how important communication is and how you can demonstrate that it is both value for money and having an impact.
The Code itself includes the words “In some circumstances it will be difficult to quantify value for money, for example where the publicity promotes a local amenity which is free to use. In such a case authorities should be able to show that they have given thought to alternative means of promoting the amenity and satisfied themselves that the means of publicity chosen is appropriate.” It adds that for large expenditure this could be done through seeking advice from economic analysts, public relations or other experts.
For many years the communication and public relations industry has struggled to find a meaningful way to quantify what it does. It was interesting to see that the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and AMEC are having discussion to review the measurement and evaluation guidance. I wait with interest to see what comes out of that.
Measuring the impact in terms of outputs is fairly meaningless but with challenging financial times ahead having the ability to be able to accurately assess the outcomes of communication is going to get even harder. There is no simple solution to this problem. But communication professionals must ensure that they have their own measures and solutions in place. When the challenge comes from the Freedom of Information queries or the Taxpayers Alliance about what has been done and the costs, we need to be able to clearly show the positive impact that the work has had on communities and individuals.
We have to accept that the time and resources that are involved in preventing inaccurate stories appearing in the media or online will never be able to be accurately quantified. The only possible way would be to speculate about the potential impact of the reporting on reputation if it had not been corrected.
Despite the challenges that communication departments do, and will continue to, receive it is clear that in the modern world the access to information is important. The key for all of us is to show that the access is provided as cost effectively as possible, which requires a new way of working. It puts the digital and online activity in a more central position than ever before. Social media and hyperlocal sites provide the opportunity to get key information out to thousands of people at minimal costs. There are lots of good examples of how it has worked. Using Facebook to catch criminals, putting consultation about local services online and Tweeting from police operations have all been used.
Whatever the outcome of the consultation on local authority publicity or the future financial situation, what remains critical is that communication professionals ensure they are in a strong position to show what they deliver, the impact it has, and how it supports the organisation.