Communications practitioners in government and other public bodies are confronted by many complicated demands. Yet all too often their work is undervalued.
Public relations as a term and as a business is changing rapidly, due both to the impact of IT innovations and the diversification of businesses and services in the global market. The essence of PR as we knew it a few decades ago has been transformed into something we can, in the broadest sense, call communication.
The fact of the matter is, we are working within a conglomeration of communication practices, from media relations to digital marketing and augmentative reality. Luckily for us, everybody understands communication as the most precious tool in the process of doing business.
The geopolitical and economic framework of the 21st century has caused the dynamic development of one specific branch of the PR business, PR in Public Administration (PA). The development has spread through all levels, from individual countries, cities, and regional associations to international organizations.
Public administration is financed from public resources (tax, state enterprises, etc.). Therefore it’s non-profit oriented. Markets and profits are not activity drivers for PR professionals in this field.
Privileged and relaxed
That, in a sense, the privileged position of constant and secured resources allows PR professionals in public institutions to work in a way that’s relatively relaxed. Here follows the downside of this condition: PR professionals in PA are not recognized as equal players by colleagues in the corporate sector. At least, not in the region where I come from (Republic of Serbia). They receive less recognition from PR peers because as public servants they are seen to enjoy secure positions and be exempt from the hectic rush for profits.
Yet the truth is that PR jobs in the public sector can be inspirational, challenging, and demanding. Not only are these roles often tough and complex, there can also be drawbacks relating to pay and career development.
PR issues in the public sector revolve around the following fact: PR is among the main duties and obligations of every public institution. As Mordecai1 points out, for business managers, cooperating with the news media and engaging in external communications is a choice. For public administrators, it is a requirement.
The necessity of informing citizens transparently and proactively on a daily basis emerges as a job with numerous activities; from daily news on the official websites and social networks, through conducting PR and communication duties in the line with current national or, for example, EU legislation, communication with line ministries, institutions and agencies in other branches of government.
The PR expert is only one of numerous communicators within his or her institution. All public officials and servants have that role embedded in their specific scope of work.
The core business of public administration, its products, and commodities are pieces of legislation, rules, and procedures, implementation of these acts throughout the system and judicial protection of human rights and interests of the citizens, altogether with the protection and preservation of a legal system within society. The exercise of these powers is the creation of public policies that requires time, money, and expertise.
Policy-making uses communication as a tool and a goal in the same time. When we observe the public sector from this communicational perspective, it is easy to realize that every single piece of work in public administration is communication (internal, external, cross-institutional).
PR experts are only one piece of a puzzle but with the complex audience network – internal audience, other governmental institutions, other branches of power, citizens, media, civil society, corporate sector, international stakeholders etc. – PR experts are or should also be advisers or mentors of their colleagues (public servants and officials) in the development of their communication skills.
One of the biggest demands is having to do business on double tracks. One track covers activities related to the institution itself and its mandate, activities, and scope of work. A quite different issue is personal PR related to the personality of the head/decision-maker of that institution (director, PM, minister, deputy PM, speaker of the assembly, mayor, etc.).
This position requires fine-tuning: taking care of public interest on one side and the potential risks of careless usage of media and PR tools in the promotion of high-ranking decision-makers and political figures on the other.
Working in PR is demanding, whatever the sector. However, when we look at the following preconditions that characterize public sector PR, we have to ask ourselves how to cope with those challenges:
- Limited resources
- Public funding requires transparent justification for each dime
- Advanced budgetary planning for the following year
- Lack of ad hoc resources for advertising, mini-campaigns, additional expenses on social networks, investment in up-to-date tools and knowledge
- Limited wages of public servants (no resources for a bonus, percentage, etc.)
- Lack of mechanisms for the promotion of the PR personnel
- High mobility of PR professionals and their short stay in the institution due to the above-mentioned restraints
- The low position of PR professionals in the decision-making process
- Lack of institutional memory (a small number of PR personnel stay in one institution for a significant period of time).
Overcoming these obstacles could secure further development of the PR profession in public administration, an important niche for the profession in our highly politicized world. Crisis management has become one of the crucial activities in the international community and the global political framework.
We live in a state of alert, 24/7. Global issues such as nuclear proliferation, sustainable development, environmental protection, the migrant crisis, conflict in the Middle East, superpower relations, rising new global economies, taken together with regional geo-political and economic issues, down to the national issues in each county, all within the framework of media generated reality, put high demands in front of PR experts in the public sector.
Therefore, the mechanisms, tools, rules and procedures of PR in the sector have to be in some way standardized, regulated and institutionalized, with a clear strategic perspective for its further advancement. All of this should follow international trends in the communication of public administration best practices, and new communication tools applicable and economically justified on behalf of public interest.
PR in PA is in the process of reshaping and, as much as possible, adjusting to the newest PR trends and practices. The catch-22 is that it’s quite impossible to implement all new gadgets, techniques, tools and practices. Some are incompatible with the public administration, others cost money beyond what is available in public sector budgets. Some possible solutions for enhancing PR public sector expertise could be the following:
- Investment in life-long learning (essential for communication management but also as a tool for overcoming the lack of financial resources or ranking acknowledgments for a job well done)
- Repositioning of PR (members of decision-making units)
- Institutional memory capacity (fostering professional communicators and keeping them for a certain number of years).
Being in PR at a ministry or in local government is not only a job or a phase in someone’s career. It is also a public service. These words mean something.
Without personal commitment and a sense of duty, it would be difficult to find high-quality professionals willing to dedicate themselves to this profound and from a dual perspective ‘public’ duty: public interest and public relations.
We as citizens want to have responsible governments. Those who plan, create, and conduct communication about the activities and duties of that government has to be among the best. They deserve to receive credit and recognition for their work.
- Brown, J., Gaudin, P.; Moran, W. (2013), PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services. CIPR, Kogan Page, London.
- Le, Mordecai, The Return of Public Relations to the Public Administration Curriculum? Journal of Public Affairs Education, Journal of Public Affairs Education, JPAE 15(4): 515–533
The article originally published at the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) website in 2017.