Critical role of public relations leadership in public services

Public services have faced almost a decade of cuts and unprecedented demand. It has put huge pressure on organisations and made public relations a critical issue for public sector boards and public engagement.

By Mandy Pearse, director at Seashell Communications.


When major decisions are being made about the strategic direction of organisations, public relations must be at the table talking about how such decisions could play out with stakeholders and the potential reputational risks.

Public service and public relations leadership

Local public service public relations leaders all over the country will be having these discussions right now with senior leadership trying to assess the impact of Brexit on their communities and how to mitigate it.

This is just one reason local public services should be a great place to develop public relations leaders.

In local government the range of services and challenges are wider than any other public relations leaders will face. For Police and Fire the levels of crisis management, from terrorist attacks to Grenfell, are well beyond what any other public service will face.

Ten years of austerity has hit front line services hardest. Councils, police and fire services have taken the brunt of cuts to the public sector. 

While the NHS has had a stand still budget over this period, local government went from over 74% of its funding coming from central government to virtually zero this financial year. At the same council tax rises were capped at 4% or less.

Modernising public relations services

Police services have also seen major cuts to their funding although they were allowed more flexibility on raising money through local taxation, which has given rise to its own challenges.

The impact of this has been to reshape the way services are delivered to over 66 million people.

You cannot undertake this scale of change successfully without great public relations leadership.

Internal communication has been critical as direct workforce has shrunk with large scale redundancies, TUPE transfers to charitable trusts and limited companies and transformation programmes to maximise value out of the remaining staff. Some councils employ only a third of the staff they did just five years ago, yet still deliver services 365 days a year.

Alongside changing staffing many public sector organisations have undertaken huge scale reshaping of their estate and the way it works.

The result has transformed the organisations. Gone in many cases are the Town Halls, the wood panelled offices and the day at the office. Instead modern flexible working enabled by ICT in anonymous office blocks is now a norm. Thousands of staff across the country have been relocated and services reshaped. 

None of this could have happened without public relations leaders working with Human Resource and Organisational Development to manage that change, keep staff informed, engaged and motivated.

Public relations leadership embracing and supporting change

This scale of change cannot happen however hard leadership teams work without some impact on frontline service delivery. 

Where changes or cuts to services have been implemented, public relations leaders have been working with leading politicians (Council Leaders and Police and Crime Commissioners) to inform local people, manage the reputational risk and work with local media. 

While the impacts of service changes have provoked ferocious media backlash locally the overall scale of change is rarely covered by national media, mainly because local public services are provided by a fragmented patchwork of organisations - district, counties, unitaries, police and fire.

But public relations leaders in these areas have faced refuse worker strikes stretching into months, protest marches from citizens outraged by closures of libraries, children’s centres and withdrawal of grants from charities supporting vulnerable people.

Business challenges facing public service organisations

Another consequence of taking this much money out of local public services has been the increasing scale of mergers and integration. 

Councils have merged in parts of Suffolk, collapsed in the case of Northamptonshire County Council and reshaped in Dorset with one county, two unitaries and eight districts becoming just two unitaries. There has been major integration of adult social care with health in places such as Plymouth.

Public relations leaders have had to tackle huge information campaigns and rebrands on tiny budgets to inform citizens of the changes to services and lines of accountability.

The financial drivers of this scale of change are enormous and rarely seen in the private sector. Taking billions of pounds out of services people rely on rather than choose to use is never going to happen quietly. It has required public relations leaders to get to grips with financial figures and projections in a way they never did before to explain the challenge to citizens.

At the same time as all this the impact of other elements of austerity such as the reduction in welfare support and the impact on charities of falling donations has also squeezed support for the most vulnerable, placing yet more pressure on services.

For public relations practitioners it has posed the dilemma of how to argue the case for additional support without scaring people. Somerset Council with support from the Local Government Association (LGA) recently highlighted the crisis in social care by working with the BBC. Brave and well handled by the public relations team.

Media change and challenges, and the rise of new media

The media landscape has also transformed in these 10 years. Where once there were daily papers there are weeklies or no paper at all. Outside of the BBC, commercial TV and radio has almost ceased news coverage in many areas. Where strong news coverage remains, it is online in a publish now, get facts later mentality. 

The challenges for public relations leaders have been huge with the need for teams to learn broadcasting and direct publishing skills to fill the void in citizen information. The support of bodies like the CIPR and Comms2point0 in delivering training cannot be underestimated.

Public affairs work has also been at the fore with public relations leaders taking grip of an area of work previously led by policy, to argue the case for investment and infrastructure in an increasingly competitive bidding environment for additional government funds.

So, with all this going on and public sector public relations leaders tackling some of the toughest challenges around, is all rosy in the world of local public service public relations? 

Celebrating public sector leadership excellence

Yes - where public sector leadership has been demonstrated as providing sage counsel, adding value, and supporting transformation.

Public relations has gained a seat at the top table and several practitioners have become Directors or Assistant Chief Executives, managing Communications alongside a portfolio of other services. Polly Cziok, Director of Communications and Culture at Hackney and Peter Holt, Assistant Chief Executive at South Northamptonshire, come to mind.

In other areas we have seen growing public relations teams as the role is acknowledged, such as at Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue under Paul Compton and award-winning teams at Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch under Georgia Turner.

But in other places we have seen teams decimated with public relations being side lined as a tactical activity focused on media relations, or principled practitioners burning out trying to hold together all the activities such as internal communications, social and digital. We’ve seen many senior practitioners decide to hang up their hats and leave the business altogether.

And a cohort of us work as Strategic Consultants to the public sector, liaising with senior management teams who realise, often after a few years, that cutting the public relations function to the bone has devastating reputational implications and having seen the light are now rebuilding the function with correct level senior posts.

The future for local public service public relations leaders can be better but we must train and equip our next generation with the business skills they need and argue the case at Chief Executive and Leader level.