State bodies don’t need to justify using PR

Written by Jim Walsh

The use of external PR agencies is an established practise for organisations all over the globe yet it is somehow still seen as undesirable for public bodies in Ireland to engage PR support.

Clearly the many state agencies who employ PR consultants see the benefit, yet from time to time, some journalists or politicians use the PR label as an example of what they consider wasting public money. The reality is often very different.

Recently the RTE Radio 1 mid-morning current affairs programme, ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’ visited the subject.  To be fair the report and discussion in this case  was reasonably balanced and not as antagonistic as on occasions when other broadcast media or print journalists have addressed the topic.  It would have been better balanced had there been someone representing PR consultants on the programme.

Reporter Brian O’Connell outlined the result of a phone-around asking state bodies if they employed PR consultancies, if they did why, and how much the consultancies were paid.

Seven state bodies responded with a variety of answers. The report was broadly factual with Sean O’Rourke at one stage putting the value for money case in favour of consultancies.

It was followed by an interview with Senator Shane Ross who admitted that while state bodies may need external help marketing programmes or activities, his objection was to the culture he saw in hiring external consultants to provide corporate or crisis management services.

Just to be clear, I have no problem with media enquiries about the cost of PR services to State Bodies or indeed about the services provided.  Most of these contracts are as a result of a public tender process and querying them is perfectly legitimate.  Some of the bodies who responded to RTE gave details of the contracts, others didn’t, citing commercial sensitivity.

Those who did respond deserve credit for being open and frank. I would be more critical of those who may have been approached but who refused to provide any information (we weren’t told in the report if there were any).

But what really struck me was why anyone would be surprised that state bodies should seek the services of external PR services.

Anyone who thinks that an enterprise or organisation cannot benefit from the services of an external PR agency is living in the past.

Internal communication staff don’t always have the resources to employ full-time skilled people across the wide range of communication techniques that are now required. Plus in many cases, depending on the scope and activities of the organisation, an external PR service provider can be more cost efficient than full time staff because of the additional costs that come with permanent employment.

PR consultancies working for state bodies often do a lot more than provide advise on communications strategy or implementation.  Many contracts are for providing executive support in activating campaigns and programmes involving managing events, providing content for communication material, social & digital media support, media training and analysis.

Questioning an organisation as to why it sees the need to employ an external PR agency may have been an issue 25 or 30 years ago but PR consultancies have well established their bone-fides in the meantime.

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