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8 observations on the impact of Covid on public sector communications

On day two of Comms Academy Francis Ingham, Director General, PRCA & Executive Director, LGcomms delivered his keynote speech:

I was asked to start day two with a general overview of where the industry stands, and on the challenges and opportunities that offers for the public sector. Many of them – happily – align with Simon Baugh’s opening thoughts from yesterday.

My overview of the industry comes from my LGcomms role, the PRCA one as the world’s largest PR body, and my ICCO one, as CEO of the umbrella body of 41 national PR associations.

Over the past month, the PRCA and ICCO have each published their annual flagship pieces of research on the state of the industry. They both make for extremely positive reading.

  • In the UK, the industry is bigger than ever. Nearly 100,000 practitioners. Contributing nearly 17 billion to the economy.
  • About one in ten practitioners were furloughed. 95% of those furloughed are back.
  • But working life has changed fundamentally. Only one in six are back to their offices five days a week, or expect to be ever again.
  • We’ll address mental health later on this morning, but there has been a clear impact on practitioners, and employers have by and large risen to the challenge of offering support.
  • There’s a new war for talent -recruitment is at scale and pace. Salaries are rising significantly.
  • Despite years of industry campaigning, the gender pay gap is still large, at 12%. And the ethnicity pay gap is even larger, at 16%. Half of white professionals earn an average salary of more than £50,00. That’s true for only a third of non-white ones.

That’s the UK picture.

What about the international one? It’s equally buoyant.

The ICCO World Report was launched last week. PR leaders were incredibly positive. They reported considerable growth over the past twelve months. That they are recruiting again – heavily. And 95% of respondents -and a majority in every continent- said that their organisation would be bigger next year than this year.

Both internationally and in the UK specifically, PR leaders attributed their renewed growth to four long-term factors:

  • CEOs in the public, private and third sectors investing more in organisational reputation
  • The rise of digital
  • PR diversifying into broader marketing offerings
  • A shift from advertising towards PR

All four trends have been turbocharged by this crisis. And they have led to rapid growth once more in the industry.

The PRCA strapline is ‘the power of communication’.And we’ve seen that power more than ever.

Organisations have seen their reputations enormously enhanced or severely dented by how they’ve communicated. And we’ve seen the truth of something we’ve asserted for years – that an organisation’s most valuable asset is its reputation.

That’s my overview. So what do I think it means for the public sector?

I’d like to make eight observations on the impact of Covid on public sector comms.

1. Communication has found its seat at the top table -it needs to keep it.

I’ve lost count during this period of the number of times I’ve heard comms leads say how they’ve never felt more overworked, but also never more valued.

That they’ve been listened to in advance of decisions being taken rather than afterwards.

That the balance of their role has shifted significantly from the responsive and tactical and towards the strategic and insightful.

The challenge here is obvious. To stay in this position when times are easier.

And that leads me to my second point.

2. More investment in data, analytics, measurement is needed.

The ICCO World Report asked PR leaders which technology will have the greatest impact on the industry in the future. Number one was measurement and analytics. Number two was research, and planning.

That’s the stuff that drives insight and in turn drives our industry into more strategic, influential territory.

It’ll also help us keep that seat at the top table.

3. The workplace has physically moved and this has positive consequences for our industry.

Tens of millions of people have fundamentally and permanently changed how they work. That number I referred to earlier -only 16% of people returning to 5 days a week in the office.

For years, the industry has said that recruiting and retaining the best, most diverse, employees has been its main challenge. Well, that challenge just became much easier – we can recruit people regardless of where they live; regardless of caring commitments; regardless of disability.

We should embrace that opportunity. We can use it to change the balance of workforces.

And on that point, I really should emphasise that I’ve never known the PR recruitment market to be hotter. The scale of recruitment is pulling salaries up, and Covid has changed employee expectations fundamentally. As was suggested yesterday, this will undoubtedly have an impact on public sector recruitment and retention.

Because point number four is this:

4. Our industry still does not reflect our society. And it needs to.

Our UK PRCA Census showed minimal change in terms of female leaders at the top; disable people employed; a continued imbalance towards those who went to private schools -of whom I’m one- and far too few BAME practitioners.

The public sector does better here than the private, but much more still remains to be accomplished.

5. Collaborative working has been forced on us -and we’re better for it

I’ve attended and spoken at dozens of local government conferences over the years. And I’ve repeatedly heard that multi-agency working is the way of the future. Of the compelling financial and operational arguments for collaboration.

And in truth while progress has been made here, it’s always been slower than people have predicted.

Well Covid has changed all of this. It has forced collaboration on everyone. Not just central and local collaboration. But also between the public and the private and third sectors. Simon made reference to this yesterday.

And I’d hope that we will work hard to ensure that it is a permanent change.

6. Internal comms has found its proper place

Internal comms has been transformed in two ways:

  • First, its importance has finally been recognised. It’s now mission critical to every organisation in every sector. According to a poll by the IoIC, two-thirds of internal communicators said that leaders have looked to them for more guidance during the crisis
  • Second, It’s also significantly less stuffy, less formal.

Communicating with dispersed teams has elevated internal comms up the priority list. And the far more regular interaction between leaders and their teams has removed -or at least changed significantly- hierarchy; and most certainly changed language.

The simple fact that we have been in one-another’s’ homes so often during this time has changed the way we interact with others.

The CEO’s address has become a conversation.

There will be a team expectation that this will continue. And it should.

7. As Simon addressed, there’s an enormous piece of work to do re disinformation and misinformation, but we’ve had great experience of doing so over the past two years.

The collaborative work that the public sector has undertaken here has truly been remarkable in scale and ambition.

This is something we can all build on, because the appetite for collaboration is amply present.

As one personal example I’d cite this:

  • ICCO is a member of the Council of Europe.
  • As part of that role, we’re working with them on their joint collaboration with the European Medicines Agency to support the promotion of reliable information on Covid-19 immunisation 
  • Our role is to help them shape European policy on digital information and disinformation.

And bear in mind that ICCO is an umbrella body of 3,000 agencies, without a single public sector member. This sort of work simply wouldn’t have been on our radar two years ago quite frankly. But collaboration is now the default not the aberration.

8. The shift to digital accelerates

The final trend is digital. Digital has never been more important. And in the years ahead, its salience will only grow.

We’ve seen that much of the activity we thought had to be conducted face to face actually doesn’t have to be.

And that most certainly holds true for the public sector -both for internal and external comms, for service delivery communication and for formal meetings.

The PRCA Digital Report launched a few months ago.   It’s in its 8th year, and it’s available for free to members and non-members alike:

  • The research shows that more than half of PR professionals had their digital budgets increased last year.
  • Nine out of ten respondents said that Covid had led clients and colleagues to expand their digital and social media activities.

There is a massive challenge here to put digital at the heart of every comms function -and that also requires an urgent upgrading of digital skills.

Conclusion

To conclude: Our industry has transformed itself during this period. It’s moved at incredible speed to adapt to new circumstances and to deliver new priorities.

I’ve made a point since last March of speaking with agency heads and in-house leaders every day. And many of those in-house leads have been from the public sector.

The overall picture?

  • These have been the most stressful of times
  • Critical decisions to be taken
  • Incredibly long hours to be worked
  • Sheer exhaustion in every part and at every level of the industry

But these times have also shown how effective, how vital, and how innovative our industry is.

They’ve accelerated the long-term trends that already favoured our industry and had powered its growth over the past decade 

  • The rise of digital
  • The blending of disciplines
  • Leaders investing in reputation.

We have the opportunity to embed all of these changes into public sector comms.

And having proved the value of professional, ethical communication over these long long months, to cement it in every organisation.

Thank you and I hope you enjoy the rest of the academy.

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