|Over the last fifteen years the voluntary sector’s attitude to public relations has changed radically, explains Stuart Hall. Where once it dismissed PR as an irrelevant luxury useful only to big business, the sector is now starting to train some of the most powerless groups in society in the public relations skills they need to speak for themselves.
So what’s the story behind the voluntary sector’s growing appreciation of the value of PR, to the extent that it is now being used as a tool for empowerment? The prime mover for this change of mind was the increasingly commercial environment that voluntary groups found themselves in at the start of the 1980’s.
The big charities led the way in using business methods – including PR – as a way of surviving the cash cuts and prospering in Thatcherís Britain. The penny was slower to drop with the rest of the voluntary sector, which still regarded PR as little more than publicity stunts and media events, having little practical value to offer those working at the ësharp endí of life.
By contrast, when faced with a similarly competitive environment, small businesses turned to a new kind of PR that was affordable, relevant and effective: do-it-yourself public relations. In his 1981 book Be Your Own PR Man, Michael Bland pointed out: “Thereís really no magic to PR. It does not require experts and it can be practised by any small businessman. It is something you can teach yourself. Indeed, as the person running the show you are better suited than anyone else to handle your firmís PR.”
Bland’s book not only showed the value of PR skills, but also how straightforward it is to acquire them and achieve results: “What PR can be is the difference between ‘plodding along’ and ‘taking off’, and in terms of the time and money required it is the most cost-effective business tool you can have.”
‘A dirty word’
She thinks PR should take some of the credit for making the voluntary sector more professional and more responsive to clients. And in a sector hard-pressed for cash, an organisation with a more professional profile stands a much better chance of getting funding: “In an increasingly competitive market, with more organisations but no more money, it’s those with the profile that often secure the funding. It may be unfair, but itís the reality.”
As well as being a practical guide, Ali’s book is valuable for the way in which it explains in clear terms what PR actually is. As the means of facilitating two-way communication between an organisation and its ‘publics’ (clients to staff, external and internal), PR employs specific tools for specific functions; used properly, itís far from being the blunt instrument it’s so often characterised as.
Here is an example from Ali’s recent consultancy work of how to get an organisation to improve its communications with its clients: “At a housing association, I got the staff to walk around the office and try and look at the place through their clients’ eyes. It was only then they noticed that where people were interviewed was lit with a bare bulb which made it look more like an interrogation cell rather than an interview room; that only cost £5 to put right with a new lampshade.”
Or to put it another way: which is more welcoming to clients, a friendly, tidy reception area of an unfriendly, messy place? Which organisation is more effective, one that asks for ideas from its staff and acts on them, or one which believes it knows what itís doing and hasn’t the time to consult staff?
That is why PR, properly understood and applied, can be so powerful. Just as the 1980’s forced the voluntary sector to become more commercially-minded, whether through legislation like the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 or simply because of the general trend to consult users of any services.
|At its most radical, this challenge by users to the traditionally top-down, paternalistic culture of charities is coming from some of the least powerful groups in society, such as the users of mental health services. They are running their own groups, cutting out the ‘middleman’ by using PR skills to communicate directly with the outside world.
As the co-ordinator of the Consumer Forum in Hammersmith, Jamie Summers, admitted, “Two years ago no one tried to do anything positive with the media because of the hurt caused by sensationalist coverage. But through the Headlines project we have seen what other groups have achieved, and slowly people are feeling – myself included – that there are good journalists worth talking to.”
The empowering benefits of such training doesn’t stop there, however. “By giving us confidence, it has changed our whole image to being more confident and part of the community,” said Irene Chaloner, who runs Bromley User Group. “This feeling has gone right through our organisation.”
Training other groups in PR skills would be truly empowering because it would enable some of the least powerful sections of society to speak and act independently, and in such a way that their views would start to be taken seriously by the outside world. As Martin Luther King III said at a community meeting in Archway last November, “You can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps unless you’ve got the boots in the first place.”