Media all over the world are blasting public spending on public relations. What role for our Professional Associations?

All hell broke loose in our community these last few days following the British media stampede on the news that Blair’s government had trebled its public relations expenses in the last ten years.
Read this sample from the Daily Telegraph.

The British professional association (CIPR) immediately issued the following statement:

Public relations has a valid role to play in Government just as it has in the private or charity sector. Large government departments need specialist and skilled communicators to help explain their policies. As the public demand for information and the number and range of communications channels expand, it is natural that the amount spent on communication experts has increased. It is in the public’s interest to have a government that is open and transparent. The civil service PR function is an inevitable and valuable part of any government activity. It is important, however, for the public to feel confident that civil servants are acting impartially, which is why the CIPR supported the Government’s decision to strip Special Advisers of their power to command civil servants and continues to believe that a powerful Civil Service Act, legally enshrining civil service impartiality, is vital if public confidence is to be restored.

Jennifer Hardie from Pinnacle gave a sudden wake up call to the members of Ipra (International Public Relations Association) with this question on the association’s private discussion group:

Does this start to show the importance of our profession, is this a result of 24/7 news or is a result of the government wanting to employ spin-doctors to make them look good – as many of the media are reporting today. What about in your own countries? Has there been an increase in PR people and has the government increased spending? I think this would be an interesting topic to get insight from our colleagues around the world.

She received various responses. Here follow two:

In Italy there has been, in recent years, an enormous increase both in central as in regional and local level of government spending on public relations.
A recent estimate indicates some 400% over the last five years, while 60 thousand of the 90 thousand pr professionals in our country work in the public sector against 40 thousand counted by the government in the year 2001. The Corte dei Conti, a State body in charge of…controlling public spending…recently blasted the central government for spending too much.
In the most recent national budget (2006) a provision obliged all public sector organizations to cut by 50% their communication costs in 2006, and this has been done by many but of course not by all. Now we have a new government and of course excessive public relations expenses are again under fire. Ferpi, the Italian pr association, together with the associations of public sector communicators, of public relations agencies and the association of small and medium sized communication companies has taken the lead and announced an upcoming proposal to the new government to include in the 2007 budget a provision by which all public sector organizations who could not prove they had a medium and short term general communication plan which also included specific programs, and both areas did not include evaluation and measurement schemes to be made public, would have to reduce their current spending by another 50%. Preliminary talks with government officials indicate that they are listening: one way of turning a risk into an opportunity for professional growth…at least this is the intention.

In general I believe both interpretations you indicate are correct.

On the one hand there is no doubt that public relations is becoming more and more important in the public sector also because the public sector needs to involve citizens in improving decision making processes and making decisions implementable in a quicker way.
Paralysis by analysis is only an ill effect of excessive consultation and a deviation from that principle of responsibility which every democratically elected decision maker or delegated manager needs to apply.
In other words, listening to stakeholders first and then deciding what one believes is the best, rather than never deciding because stakeholders represent obviously conflicting interests.
This approach greatly enhances the strategic reflexive role of pr and is slowly entering into the minds of public sector decision makers, but also private and social sectors are not immune to this new view of pr.
And this is the half full side of the cup.

The half empty is that, as you say, spin is all around us and is greatly increasing.
In my view this is more the responsibility of the public relations community that of the political community. We created, invented, promoted, launched, exhalted spin and…it worked!
The politicians, together with the leaderships of all sorts of organizations caught on and we are living a mass epidemic of the ‘visibility’ virus.
This is obviously good for many of our kin, less so for the profession….

°while Peter Walker, head of the reputed PIELLE Consulting Group wrote:

Please be cautious about this headline …(i.e. spending on PR by UK government trebles in 10 years’…).
It was generated by the Conservative opposition party and filtered by a UK media anxious to put pressure on Blair and the Blair government to fuel their political news machines as we run up to the annual party political conference season when every major political party and most of the minor ones too will parade themselves for their own supporters and the benefit of the media.
UK Government has always placed significant important in the need for an independent and powerful Government Information service obligated to informing the public. The structuring of the public relations profession as a fully fledged management discipline with professional status in the UK (1948) owes everything to the importance of information officers in local and national government .. the founding President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 1948 – Sir Stephen Tallents – was the principle architect of that Government Information Service now the Information and Communication Service.
Just two years ago -in a re-action to the effect that the ‘spin doctor’ syndrome, where political publicists were attached to Ministers, was having on public trust in government information- the Government information service, GICS, was overhauled, restructured and its professionalism re-enforced within the UK civil service. I don’t know, you don’t know what jobs were covered by the public relations descriptor used by the media, press officers, website editors, events organizers …what.
Please, we are supposed to be professionals so let’s not rise, trout like, to the lure of sexy headlines and a political media agenda. Instead let’s ponder, as Italy seems to be doing, about the role and needs of Government information services when trust is an essential as Government’s world wide have a responsibility to inform society on issues of public health, public safety, personal social and economic well being, and in how many languages and nuances to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse and poorly educated and demanding public.
Now .. what is behind the headlines and can I trust it…to what extent has your own corporate budget on everything under the public relations banner grown in the last ten years?

Excellent point and very well taken, Peter!

We seem to be so immersed in our own spin that we don’t even realize when we find ourselves caught in someone else’s…just like we would like our publics to react….
I have been trying to convince educators in my country that it is much more important to teach kids how to critically read the media since childhood rather than create hundreds of useless communication science or public relations college courses….
Of course, it should come as no surprise (if not a welcomed one, at least from our community) that extended government spending in public relations has trebled in the last ten years!
This of course does not mean that the British government is spending that money effectively nor that tax payers should not have the right to complain about the secrecy in which those sums are actually spent.
Professional associations should, at least in this case and not only in the UK, be very consumerist, and pretend that Governments regularly report on how these moneys are spent, by whom, with whom, what for and -most importantly- with which results. This would imply these programs had integrated, explicit and measurable objectives and therefore that professional public relations people are being progressively empowered to do their thing in the right way.
One more very important point:
for some years now, the European Union has made it a habit to only grant financial support to local, regional and national member state programs which have incorporated an analysis of expected results.
Excellent principle.
But this example has not always been followed by national governments. Professional Associations, both at a Global and Regional, but even more so, at a National level, should strongly advocate and outright lobby so that at least all public works tenders from the outset, wherever (today….always) there is an issue of local community relationships (nimby and all that jazz….) be integrated with a specific call for proposals from public relations providers offering stakeholder relationship programs, and most importantly empowering the internal public relations department of the public body in charge to a) write the call, b) select the provider and c) manage the field implementation.
Just this very minor change would divert significant resources from spin activities to reliable, professional and accountable public relations practices in the public sector.

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2 Replies to “Media all over the world are blasting public spending on public relations. What role for our Professional Associations?

  1. Very stimulating comment, Joao.
    I wonder if others agree with your two main points:
    a- are mainstream media really concerned about receiving too much info from us? And if so, what evidence have we that they are doing something about this, rather than just blasting us everytime they have an opportunity? (and of course we tend to serve them such opportunities with great frequency…)
    b- is there evidence that public relations professionals are turning to the ‘non-informative layer'(as you call it) of the media for their activities? From my perspective, I see an intense attempt by our US based colleagues to circumvent and stay out of the media in general and attempt to communicate with their influential publics more directly, and this for two reasons: one, they don’t think that the media is any longer more credible than the primary source would be; two, that they prefer to avoid being scrutinised, commented and interpreted by journalists…. whereas in the UK I owuld say that the popular as well as the serious media tend to attract more and more attention from our british colleagues.
    Other opinions on this??

  2. Sorry if I derive a little bit from the topic of PR practice in the public sector and focus on the issue of media (or, at least, the informational layer of the media) targeting PR with their criticism.

    In my view, the bottomline of this discussion is that media people (mainly editors) are increasingly worried that their subordinates (journalists) rely too much on organisational secondary sources (PR people, press agents, PR agencies) instead of having organisational primary sources (executives, technicians, managers).

    The traditional argument goes that if they don’t have access to different sources, their work will basically resemble that of the competing media, and they will have impact in their sales and in their advertising figures.

    The second part of this argument is that if advertising goes down, it is in part due to the fact that many contents that one actor (let’s say, the public administration) should place in the form of paid avertising are being placed in the form of free publicity. And this is why too much investment in PR is bad for the media (or, at least, the informational layer of the media) and why they want to reject all free publicity and be very strict on what they publish.

    But could this mean a new trend in PR? The idea that we should improve our relationships with the “non-informative layer” of the media? Make a better use of our contents for documentaries, entertaining programs, soap operas (some in portugal heve been used for example for disease awareness campaigns) and other kinds of shows.

    Please share your thoughts about this.

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