Coming home on the tube yesterday I saw a headline in one of the freebie newspapers which said “Haringey Council blew £2m on PR” The argument, depressingly familar to those of us who work in public sector communications, is that every penny spent on press officers means less for social workers, leading in this case directly to the death of Baby P. Comforting myself with the thought that my source was hardly a paper of record, I googled the story this morning to see if any of the “proper” papers were running with it. I found this in the Telegraph, which repeats the argument pretty much exactly, making a direct link between the money spent on PR and the casework overload of the social worker in the Baby P case.
I am a PR consultant who works for public sector organisations (and therefore, obviously, am quite happy to grab cash and if possible food from the hands of widows and orphans), so I have a bit of a biased view of this one. But I’m still pretty depressed at the frequency with which the PR = wasted money argument comes around. I’ve spent most of my career in publicly-funded bodies, and have always had at the front of my mind the fact that I am spending the public’s money on the projects I do, so need to get value for money. (By the way, I appreciate the irony that I am now defending Haringey’s PR team, having criticised their performance over the Baby P case a couple of posts back – perhaps it means Haringey just aren’t spending enough…)
So, off the top of my head, here are five quick reasons why it’s worth public bodies spending public money on communicating with the public – and how depressing to have to trot them out yet again.
1. There’s little point in spending very large amounts of money in providing services for the public and then failing to let them know how/where to access those services
2. It’s good for local democracy to let people know how their elected representatives are spending their money. Even if individuals don’t personally need to access all local services it’s good that they know that the Council does more than just emptying the bins. If people understand how their Council Tax is being spent, they can object if they want to, which is one way of keeping the link between local government and local people alive. Comms budgets often pay for public consultations on contentious local issues.
3. Media training doesn’t mean turning out hordes of automata who just parrot a party line. It means helping people who are not professional communicators deal with the pressures of media scrutiny so that they can put their case as effectively as possible.
4. Press offices offer an invaluable resource of information and contacts for journalists – bet the Telegraph journo who sourced the quotes for this story gets lots of help from PRs!
5. As a proportion of Haringey’s overall operational budget, £2.2m is peanuts. I think I read that the total budget was somewhere north of £250m (I could always call their press office to check…) So the PR budget represents just a shade under 1%.
If anyone wants to add more I’d be happy to hear them, and store them up for the next time this story comes around.
And finally, why is the PR industry so bad at doing PR for itself?