In My Opinion: John Brown: Public sector PR professionals require to put the public interest first

PUTTING the public interest first is, in my view, the biggest challenge for all PRs  working in councils, health boards, the police and other public services.

The likes of the recent report on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust provides a wake-up call to all public services professionals – especially PRs – on issues of transparency.

Just how commonplace are cover-ups in our public services? Whistleblowers and complainants are often dismissed or demonised; statistics have been deliberately manipulated and many council and health service public consultations appear to be rigged or flawed.

The new Information Commissioner in Scotland, Rosemary Agnew, is shortly to league table public bodies on their performance – or lack of it – in dealing with Freedom of Information requests and identify those bodies who appear to be deliberately dragging their feet.

In England, only the Recommended Local Government Publicity Code is to be made mandatory – an unnecessarily draconian move in my view. Section 38 of a new bill, The Local Audit and Accountability Bill, is going through Westiminster following what I believe to have been rushed consultation in May.

The Scottish Ombudsman has pinpointed public interest failures in recent council and health services investigations – significant personal injustice, systematic failure and inadequate local complaints procedures. The Ombudsman singles out public bodies’ poor communication with citizens and complainants as a key factor underlying most of the complaints he receives. Public interest would be served by better communication, better complaints procedures.

Public bodies are now better at saying ‘sorry’ when things go wrong. But when the upmpteenth inquiry report into service failures spells out the same or very similar recommendations for better co-ordination, better recording, better learning and better communication, have the public services really learned the lessons they glibly talk about in press statements?

Robert Francis QC, in the Mid Staffs report, calls for a ‘duty of candour’ enforced by law for health professionals. Candour – telling the truth about a difficult of embarrassing issue – should be the watchword of all PRs. Communicating in the public interest should be their overriding objective.

Providing information truthfully and honestly to the public was a founding professional objective of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations 65 years ago. The then ‘municipal group’ of council information officers who were instrumental in setting up the CIPR (then called the Institute of Public Relations) believed that information engaged and empowered people and enhanced democracy.

Times have changed, but the principle remains if public trust is to be retained in our public services.

With the internet, FOI, and much open access to public bodies, the demands on information, the detail, quality and quantity sought by the public is much greater than 65 years ago, or even a decade ago.

So, what should this mean for PRs/communicators seeking to meet public interest?

* Always advocate openness of information to the public, and ensure that the statutory exemptions are minimal;

* Ensure public consultations are open and honest and the consultees have all the facts, including costs, on the options available. As the consultor’s communications person, PRs have a special responsibility;

* When there is an inquiry report published with recommendations and an implementation programme, PRs have a responsibility within their public body to assist the professionals (the clinical, social work, education or whoever) in getting the messages across internally to all staff; and

* When there is a crisis internally, do not resort to covering up. Face it, head on, and argue your case even against pressures from the CEO, the council leader or committee chair or other professionals. Do not tell – or try to spin – another story if the known facts of the situation tell it differently.

As Francis in the Mid Staffs report states: “There is a difference between a judgement which is hindered by understandable ignorance of particular information and a judgement clouded or hindered by a failure to accord an appropriate weight to facts which were known.”

To form a judgement should involve PRs being willing and sufficiently confident to challenge, to ask the questions that might be asked in the public interest, and to interrogate those involved to ensure that the known facts are correct.

Public relations professionals have a critical role in ensuring public interest is embedded in their communications work with all their constituencies; internally, with their staff, and externally, with clients, patients, consumers and citizens.

PRs have a 360-degree view of their organisation and how it is perceived. They have an overriding duty to stand up against professional, organisational and political pressures so they can put public interest first. And communicate confidently in the public interest.

John Brown is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and is a public relations consultant. He was formerly head of Public Relations and Marketing for Strathclyde Regional Council and Glasgow City Council. He is co-author of ‘PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services‘, published earlier this year. The above comments have been extracted from a speech given, last month, by him to a CIPR/local government National Communications Group (Scotland) event held at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.