Public Sector Communications in the Austerity Era: The Right Message

November 2012
News Item
Sheli Smith
2nd November 2012

Tight-rope walking tigers sporting branded t-shirts might seem like a good way to grab attention, but if it bears no relevance to your key message, it will serve as an expensive way to achieve very little. That’s not to say that PR should be viewed as free advertising, although if done well it can provide exceptional value for money.

PR has and continues to evolve as a discipline. However, persuasion and influence still shape an industry that remains concerned with getting the message across.

In an era of budget cuts and reduced spending, the art of message crafting has become crucial to public sector organisations that are tasked with achieving a lot more with a lot less.

For example, landmark public health reforms will see responsibility for issues such as sexual health, smoking and obesity transferred from primary care trusts to local authorities from April 2013.

Council communications teams will need to work harder to take on this wider remit, which was described by LG Comms chairman Cormac Smith as the “biggest single challenge that faces local government communicators” with many lacking sufficient resources. Therefore, a key focus should be on developing the right PR strategy and more importantly, shaping and delivering the right messages.

Easier said than done.

Whilst we do know that earlier this month the Government announced it is to spend £285m on communications in the financial year 2012-2013; there is, ironically, a lack of clarity about how much resource will transfer from the NHS in terms of budgets for public health activities.

On a positive note, the announcement shows a commitment to the important role that communications plays in public life. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) are also preparing guidelines on what interventions work to assist local government staff in choosing the most effective way to improve health whilst providing value for money.

The best approach is to use these guidelines to develop messages that address the needs of all stakeholders; most importantly, the need for honesty and relevant information. It is the public sector employees who will hold the key to these external communications challenges and local authorities will need to develop strong internal communications plans to ensure staff morale, engagement and productivity.

Local authorities need to manage the expectations of the public at a time when they have less money to spend and communications activities will play a fundamental part in shaping the public’s view of how well services are being delivered.

By Sheli Smith