In which I do something really weird …

The last few months have thrown up all sorts of oddities in my existence. So many that I thought, ‘what the hell, let’s do something entirely new and really weird.’

Having previously written in defence of HR here. So why not why speak up for another corporate service that finds it difficult to speak up for itself? Yes, this is a post devoted to PR. Or as its practitioners are now commonly now known, ‘evil spinmeisters.’

Mrs RPS just asked what had got me punching the keyboard at this late hour. When I explained she said, ‘good luck!’ And left. It’s a hard sell this one.

PR in the public sector has a lousy reputation. This is having a devastating effect on the industry according to PR Week. Politicians of all hues have decided to give the PR profession a hammering. You can see a typical example here.

It was this last example that prompted me to put down my ginger beer and reach for the keyboard.

The MP involved draws attention to an advert for a PR bod at a Fire and rescue Authority and issues a stern warning.

My message to the Fire service is this – recruit that PR clerk and commit to a £30,000 a year salary at your peril. We need to retain fire-fighters, not recruit another schmooze expert to woo the media and make management look good.

Now let’s try to get past the irony of an MP from a party dedicated to localism involving herself in an operational matter in a local public body over which there is local democratic oversight.

I was intrigued by the job content being criticised. So I had a closer look.

Starting at the beginning it appears that the fire authority involved already has a PR function. It’s provided by an outside organisation, a small local business in fact. I know this because I checked the fire authority website. While I was there I found out that this profligate organisation kept its council tax increase to 1% in 2010/11. Spendthrifts.

I also found out that the authority plans to save at least £1.5m by March 2011. Its annual budget is £28.5 million. For that local residents get 540 or so firefighters supported by 142 non-operational staff. More important is what these folks achieve. In 2009/10 they rescued 260 people from house fires, traffic collisions or other incidents. In all, the service dealt with 6,864 incidents. That’s 18 incidents every day.

All this assurance and activity costs £82.44 a year at Council Tax Band D. Put another way that’s 23p a day. Less than the cost of a newspaper or a snickers bar.

Doesn’t look like such a bad deal to me. But what do I know?

Anyway, back to the vexed issue of public relations. As I said this is something the authority already buys in. Again using my Poirot-like skills I had a quick look at the monthly payment schedules that the authority publishes (albeit in PDF). The three listings that have been published (July, August and September) show the authority spent just under £31,000 with its current PR company.

Begins to put the advert for a job at just under £31,000 a year (plus oncosts) into a bit of perspective doesn’t it?

But there’s more. Why I wondered would the authority be advertising for a permanent member of staff when it already had a contract with an external provider.

Using my special, magical powers of investigation – otherwise known as the ‘search function’ on the authority website – I dug deeper.

I looked up the papers for the Corporate Services Policy and Challenge Group held on 11 November. I was particularly interested to read the Corporate Services Project Monitoring Report. This tells anyone interested how the authority is doing in implementing projects to improve the service it gives local residents.

This contained a full update on how the authority is going to rationalise all its current policies and update its approach to communicating with the people who pay for and rely on its services. In other words how it was going to achieve more with less. The report also said this,

‘Draft PR, Marcomms & Brand development tender documents approved. Project back on track. OJEU process launched 15/10/10. PR recruitment process to run in parallel.’

A light, if not a firework, began to go off. So I looked up the OJEU for some details of the tender.

Sure enough the authority has gone out to tender for PR. The document advises interested companies that,

It should be noted that in parallel, the contracting authority … are also researching the option of employing a Press officer, and will evaluate which option will offer … best value on the basis of PQQ responses to Lot 1.

Yes, that’s right. The authority is going to see which option gives the best value and go for it. Doesn’t that sound a little bit like a plan that might work?

Of course it doesn’t deal with why a fire authority might want to communicate effectively with people. Let’s look at the self-promotion that’s gone on.

How about the self-congratulatory joint event with local police targeting drink drivers? Or the revolting smug drawing attention to the addition fire risks presented by families affected by domestic violence? No? Then perhaps you will be outraged by the authority telling its taxpaying residents that it has upgraded the IT in its control room.

It seems to me that doing good public relations should be part of any tax-funded organisation’s obligation to those that pay for it. Do we really not want to know what service is available where? How money is being spent? Or to be able to get a sensible answer to a question like, ‘Why does potentially recruiting a full-time in-house PR person make economic sense?’

But maybe I’m just weird.


About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
This entry was posted in CSR2010, public relations, Uncategorized, value for money and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to In which I do something really weird …

  1. Ann Kempster says:

    Thank you. Nothing more maligned than a public/civil servant working in PR/comms – speaking as one myself. We are not ‘spinners’ – those are the special advisers to ministers.

    Of course there has been excess in the past but it has also done a lot to raise awareness and actually cut expenditure in public services…

    About time comms got a bit of the credit it is due.

  2. Richard says:

    RE the fun to be had by fisking Nadine Dorries, this post makes some points that I think are worth keeping in mind.

  3. cb says:

    I’d like to place a claim for ‘most maligned’.. I’m a social worker :p
    Although one of the last training events I was on, there was a distinct difference that instead of my colleagues complaining about how much everyone hates social workers and no-one understands us, they were complaining that everyone hates public sector workers and no-one understands us!
    I think the vilification of the public sector does so many people a great disservice and the separation of ‘front-line’ from ‘back office’ is an absolute joke because so many departments are interlinked. Firstly, front line jobs are going all over the place and not being filled and second, we would fall to pieces and are without our so-called ‘back office’.

  4. The thing that struck me about this is why on earth a £30k tender has been advertised in OJEU. No small company interested in running a sustainable business goes for openly advertised contracts of this size. The cost of responding to open tenders when set against the high risk of failure (because of the numbers likely to respond) together with the cumbersome and expensive ways public bodies procure these type of contracts make these sorts of contracts deeply unattractive to well run businesses in it for the long term. Why not just invite proposals from three local firms (not rocket science to find out who they are…….) and set these against the full time option. Oh, and remember that the full time option will cost the authority way in excess of the advertised salary because of employment costs, accommodation, etc -another factor that is frequently overlooked by public bodies…..

    • Dear Vicky,

      It’s a great question. In fact the contract is for a sum much higher than this because it includes a range of related services and is over a a period of time.

      You’re right to mention oncosts too and I refer to these in the post.

      My overall point is that what can seem simple – ‘a waste of money’ – is often more complex.

      Best wishes


  5. ericonabike says:

    Nice try RPS but I think the whole public sector issue has gone beyond logical analysis. We’re in the stocks and it’s our employers who are throwing the rotten fruit at us.

  6. Andrew says:

    Brilliant analysis; shame you arn’t working a for a media organisation or MP so you can be paid for all this work. But, hang on, they would never employ you as your analysis has lots of fact and does not add up to one simple soundbit.

    Will armchair auditors be able to put two and two together in this way??

    • Dear Andrew,

      Thanks for the comment. I think today’s publication of government spending data begs lots of questions about how the ambitions for post-bureaucratic accountability are supposed to work in practice on incomplete records.

      Best wishes


  7. Mean Mr Mustard says:

    Let’s be fair to the clueless lazy politician. Theirs is not the only ‘profession’ populated with idiots who like to shoot from the hip. I suspect it’s something more general to do with being a little tipsy with power, evident in the ever so slightly presumptive and directive tone. Did you spot that? Don’t you ever go confusing their ilk with the facts, RPS – that’s an most inconvenient Civil Service trait which most surely needs to be curbed, now that kneejerk responses and conveniently correct answers are demanded by yesterday.

    Not wishing to harp on about other blogs I mentioned earlier, but Dmitry Orlov has just posted up a most interesting piece on the limits of incompetence, relevent here.

    “Kruger and Dunning proposed that, “for a given skill, incompetent people will:
    tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
    fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
    fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
    recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.”

  8. As always I look forward to your blog, this one should be required reading for all the ‘knockers’ of the public Service who love the short headline that can destroy so much good work that is going on.

    • Dear Roger,

      Thank you for the comment. I was intrigued by the idea that a public body would be going out for a PR professional given that’s the public sector equivalent of owning up to being a Jedward fan. I thought there must be something more to it than that. And surprise, surprise there was.

      Like you say a carefully thought through idea toast because of an easy headline.

      Best wishes


  9. Pingback: Society daily 19.11.10 | United Kingdom Society News

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