Govt axe on PR best avoided by measurable productivity

March 27, 2009 at 11:36 am 3 comments

By Tim Marshall

This morning’s front page lead in the New Zealand Herald headed “Spin doctor jobs on line as Govt orders cuts” begs for a blog post.

My first thoughts are on measurable productivity. If Government PR and communications people are making a measurable difference then why would any rational person want to get rid of them?

Key words in the above paragraph are “if” and “rational”. Let’s deal with if first: In my experience PR and communications activities are often not well measured, usually because organisations want to dedicate limited budgets to activities and insufficient or none to measuring the success of these activities. This is shortsighted but unfortunately it is the PR people who face the axe if they can’t demonstrate the success of their programmes. As individuals and as an industry we need to battle for budgets to measure the success of our activities. By the way, it’s not good enough for PR practitioners to say PRINZ should do something about this. PRINZ is doing a lot about it – including running courses and making measurement resources available – but it needs the wholehearted personal support of PR practitioners to do more.

Re “rational”: There does seem to be an hysterical public and journalistic dislike/scorn of PR that manifests itself in the use of derogatory terms like spin doctor. Conversely we know that capable PR practitioners are among the most highly valued and trusted advisers of the leaders of private, public and not for profit organisations – although unfortunately this does not often hit the news headlines. Personally my counter to irrationality is to present the facts – see paragraph above about measurable productivity.

My second thought on this issue is communication. First measure your productivity, then communicate that to the powers that be and the public who vote them in. Ironically it is well recognised within the industry that PR and communications management professionals have not done a good enough job of communicating our successes. Again, a major part of the solution to that problem lies in having a universally well supported and funded industry body that can collate and tell our stories. That’s not to suggest that individuals shouldn’t chime in and advocate for PR – they absolutely should. But I am convinced the key to this is institutional strength.

The tone of this blog post may have led you to believe that I think all PR and communications activity is worthwhile and that we just need to prove that. Well of course it’s not. There are clearly some activities that are excessive or unnecessary. Our reputation as an ethical occupation will be enhanced when we use our professional judgment to say “No” to our clients’ and bosses’ ill-conceived PR schemes even if they might benefit us financially in the short term. In that sense I support the Government’s scrutiny of its operations.

So here’s my plea/advice to Tony Ryall: Sure, scrutinise PR and communications programmes and get rid of the excessive, the unessential and the low priority. But then, for your own benefit, ask your departmental heads to put in place MEASURABLE strategic PR and communications programmes so you can see what’s working and what’s not. Also, stop denigrating PR professionals as “spin doctors”, it’s unbecoming. PR and communications programmes are necessary and the best people to formulate and execute those are ethical and expert PR and communications professionals supported by an excellent professional body.


Entry filed under: communications management, ethics, measurement and evaluation, New Zealand, PRiNZ, professional development, public relations, reputation, trust.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Graeme Purches  |  March 27, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Well done Tim – you have succinctly hit several nails on the head.
    From my perspective, the sad thing about all this is the fact that Tony Ryall has avoided outlining exactly why there was a need for him to cull the number of communications management and public relations roles in Government entities in the first place.
    Sitting on the sidelines, it has become increasingly apparent to me over recent years that there was a direct relationship between ballooning number of people employed in Government sector PR/Comm’s roles and the Labour Government’s desire to engage heavily in social marketing, and the promotion of its social agenda.
    In some ways Ryall’s action reflects moves by Obama’s government to foster a more ethical approach to communications – something the Public Relations Society of America, and indeed PRINZ, has been promoting for years.
    That said, I have seen very little if any evidence of unethical behaviour by what some in the “green eyed” media refer to as the Government “spin doctors”. The failure of some in the media to grasp the difference between a “press secretary” and a “communications professional”, and the difference between the communication challenges of the 1960s and those of today’s multi media world, speaks volumes about why some of our media are struggling to survive.
    The reality is, the so-called “spin doctors” have been simply accurately presenting the messages of their former Government employer, and if some of our media presented the news as accurately, all of us would be better off.
    The real challenges facing Ryall and the current Government are two-fold – a need to ensure that New Zealanders are accurately informed, in an ethical manner, about the what, when, why and how, and to accurately measure how effectively those messages are getting across to those affected, and to those who will be visiting the ballot box in October 2012.
    Sadly, it seems they have stumbled badly at the first hurdle, by not clearly explaining how and why they have ended up in the unfortunate position of having to curtail a significant number of jobs in the public sector. And I’m not sure they will make it at the second hurdle either, because to put it simply, many of those whose jobs are on the line have exactly the skills needed to advise current government on how to do that properly!

  • 2. Mark Fenwick  |  March 27, 2009 at 3:52 pm


    With respect and with empathy to those whose jobs will be affected, whether communicators really are making a measurable difference is beside the point. There is a political driver here and there will be reductions in budgets and headcount. Our system is in serious trouble if there isn’t. I’m sure the constituency that elected this Government is applauding the Minister and his colleagues. Those men and women now sitting around the cabinet table would be very, very sceptical of their chances or even the value in trying to change voter’s minds on this count. That’s simply a pragmatic political call.

    There is, I suspect, a related policy call that I believe has already been made by at least two of the key political parties. It’s about the value of having communications resource in-house when smaller, smarter government is the overarching strategic driver. If this is the strategy – and I think the evidence is clear that it is – then the choices that must be made are not that difficult. Even if public sector CEs hear their managers make a convincing case for communicators enhancing the customer service or policy or programmes their colleagues deliver, they know the Executive has voter’s perceptions to consider.

    Call it what you will: spin, PR, communications, marketing, internal communications, market research, stakeholder management, consultation, public engagement. When its in the state sector, it all seems to amount to more tax or more rates for the customers who pay for it and who vote.

    This view is built on reflection after several years experience at the country’s largest local authority. When presented with the evidence of a team of professionals making a difference, councillors chose to remain unconvinced. “It’s not as if they are building kerb and channeling”, was the memorable public comment from one. The man is no fool, while he knew what the value of the services and counsel provided was to him, he doubted if the organisation needed as big a team as it had. And what was abundantly clear was what he had to communicate to his constituency – the ones who will be giving him a performance review at the ballot box before too long.

    There is a clear hint about where the PR industry’s efforts should be best deployed in that anecdote. The short term prospects for those whose career plans must change are still good, its just that they will need to focus hard on who really wants to pay for their skills and how much they are prepared to pay.

    I suspect if there is any chance of your pleas being heard it is only after Ministers see their CE’s do as the Minister for State Services has asked. Some time down the track, if agencies in the state sector are finding public policy objectives are at risk because of a lack of communications management capacity, they’ll identify that need. If they make a sufficiently sound business case for the resource, they’ll get it. But I wouldn’t rate their changes too highly before the next election, unless of course someone identifies a need for landowners to understand what the implications of a cycling track down the back paddock boundary might be.

    This is very much one view from Auckland and I hope it helps to solicit some comment from those of our colleagues elsewhere in the country who may be able to comment from firsthand observation.

  • […] of New Zealand’s National Executive blogs on government directives regarding communications staff. He was commenting on a New Zealand Herald report on an announcement by the Minister for State […]

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