Tim Downs, Director of Aberfield Communcations, says that the arbitrary division of public sector and private sector comms has finally broken down – and best practice in one is just as important and valid as best practice in the other.
We should celebrate the successes of communications professionals working with public sector clients just as much as those working with private clients.
For many years, the distinction has always been made between public sector and private sector communications, as if they were two separate entities existing in parallel universes. All too often I’ve also seen them pitched against each other, as if one is somehow better than the other.
I’ve always been agency-side, but through working closely with public sector partners, it’s the similarities, rather than the differences, between the two that have stuck with me.
I also know that the idea that public sector communications is somehow different to other forms of PR really gets on the nerves of the people who work in it, especially as it’s always agency types who tend to highlight the differences in a way that is hard to see as anything other than condescending.
The fact is, the only difference is that public sector comms people have to respond to a different set of internal pressures and – in many cases – legal limitations, which happen to make their jobs harder.
The number of stakeholders they need to satisfy is normally far greater and the aims of those stakeholders are as diverse as they are, not the simple profit and loss game found in the private sector. Let’s see how you’d do if you had to get your press releases signed off by the Marketing Director, Managing Director, and each and every shareholder!
However, the biggest misnomer that exists for me is the idea that public sector communications is in some way a different language or way of speaking. It’s absolutely not. Its outcomes are exactly the same as private sector communications: to influence audiences and their behaviours.
Public sector communicators are just as aligned with their audiences as private sector PR people and in most cases are far closer to them than the agencies who focus on headlines and ‘raising awareness’ will ever get.
In the last 10 years I’ve seen a huge change in the way that public sector campaigns are developed, the outcomes they are seeking and the tactics they adopt, which makes them largely indistinguishable from private sector campaigns.
There are a couple of good reasons for that. Firstly, we are all communicating directly with the same audiences. Digital and social media allow us to talk directly to consumers, and increasingly to target specific niche audiences, which places public sector communications side by side with private sector comms, in some cases directly competing for an audience’s attention in a way that would never have happened before.
It’s definitely not uncommon to hear and see public sector content and messaging next to private sector content on Facebook and increasingly around digital and online radio and streamed media. The work we did with NHS MindMate, a mental health campaign aimed at young people, is a good example of this.
Secondly, public sector organisations have needed to pursue increasingly commercial outcomes for their work, which has directly influenced their communications outputs. From health and education to local authorities, cuts to public spending and pressure on budgets means organisations now need to generate revenue which requires a very different approach to communications. Local authorities for example are becoming landlords and are also pursuing inward investment at international, national, regional and local levels.
Again, this places them directly alongside the private sector. This work has specific objectives and a need to demonstrate a tangible ROI, which increasingly also applies to the communications that surround them. Sounds familiar to private sector communications, doesn’t it?
These are some of the factors that have helped to evolve public sector communications in the last decade, which we see evidenced in their broader day-to-day activity. It has never been clearer than during the pandemic, that from public health messaging to highlighting the financial aid that is available to keep private sector firms afloat, public sector communications has dominated our industry landscape over the last 12 months.
But more importantly, it has demonstrated to me why we should be celebrating our public sector counterparts as examples of best-in-class PR practitioners full stop, not as a separate and distinct group.