Five reasons why money spent on PR is always worth it

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?

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4 responses to “Five reasons why money spent on PR is always worth it

  1. That’s very sharply observed.

    I’m just reading a good discussion of the broader issues of the public perception of PR in a new book: PR – a persuasive industry?

    As the authors wryly observe, the media always gets the last say on PR and we’re left with the frustration you feel.

    At least we have our blogs, and bloggers are challenging the media stereotypes.

  2. I do also still wonder whether the in-house PR team at Haringey were arguing for greater transparency and for prompt and genuine apologies – and just didnt get listened to.

    If the reputation of PR in the public sector is consistently maligned and the value attacked, it is no ownder that some organisations dont show respect for the function and for the advice it can provide.

    I dont know the background to the role of PR in Haringey so I may well be wide of the mark.

    Thanks for expressing the arguments so clearly.

  3. sarahgillingwater

    You’re right Penny – this topic does come round with depressing frequency, and as a fellow public sector communicator it’s something I feel I have to defend on a regular basis.

    Worryingly though, sometimes we have to defend it to staff within the very organisations we’re trying to promote. I bet if you spoke to some of those social workers who’s funding we were ‘stealing’, they would be siding with the London freesheet. Or perhaps I’m being disingenuous…

  4. But at least the headline wasn’t “£2m blown on PR spin”, which would have been seen as so much worse. Adding the word “spin” to any attempt to communicate a story or issue in the light most favourable to the source immediately conveys an impression of untruth. I leave it to you to imagine how much greater the anticipated outrage in the reader had the headline writer used this device to imply that council taxpayers’ money was being spent on this frivolous exercise which was intended to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

    Sometimes, the political imperative is to put across your case in the best possible light. It’s not wrong, it’s not lies (at least, it shouldn’t be), it’s just life. And that’s as much a part of the value of communication as the strict imparting of factual information.

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