Communicating without communicators

The horsemeat scandal in Europe has an interesting sidelight – the company at the centre of the crisis, Findus, has sacked its entire senior communications team. Not, mind you, after the crisis hit but way back in 2011 as a cost-cutting exercise.

 Private Eye (22/2/13-7/3/13) reported that “smug cries of ‘I told you so’ are reverberating around (UK) PR land” after the crisis erupted and the news about the communication cutbacks was revealed.

 Often companies get rid of in house staff to rely on contractors or outsourcing (as a former consultant I know how beneficial this can be to consultancies) but in recent years the trend towards outsourcing has swung the other way with organisations building up their in house staff. At the very least organisations need to keep some expertise in house to ensure they get value from any contracting work and also to have someone with the expertise to understand precisely what they are seeing from the contractor.

 Back in the 1980s, when outsourcing became very popular, a client of mine at the time outsourced its whole legal operation without keeping any in house counsel. Needless to say legal costs went up because the people who could best brief, monitor and evaluate the outsourced services had gone. Now – as with in house PR – salaries for legal counsel have increased dramatically and many are earning as much, if not more, than senior partners in major firms. Indeed, it is doubtful whether there are many PR consultants, lawyers, accountants who are earning as much in a firm as they would be working for a corporation.

 In the Findus case the interesting thing is that – while there were many other players involved including major retailers such as Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s – Findus seems to have copped more criticism than all the others. It is impossible to ascertain whether there is a causal relationship between the absence of senior PR counsel and the criticism but it is tempting to believe there is some connection.

 Governments have also been notorious for cutting back on communications – whether through advertising, PR consultancy or in house staff – after being elected. In all the years of working with public sector staff – as clients, in workshops and sometimes as post-grad students – I have always been impressed by just how good the best of them are. Some of them, particularly the women, like the flexibility the public sector offers. Others like the opportunity to work on challenging policy issues and many like the opportunity to work with decent research and evaluation budgets. Many control budgets and staff larger than most private sector operations.

 Yet new governments assert (sometimes correctly) that their predecessors were guilty of wasting money on PR and propaganda, use this to justify the cutbacks and then complain about the need for ‘better’ communication as soon as they run into political trouble. They then discover that many of their best in house PR people were among those who put up their hands for redundancy packages taking a handy cheque with them into other jobs or, as a bonus, when they went back to their previous department as a contractor.

 Worse, they discover that running quickly developed campaigns after trouble develops is no substitute for the long-hard grind of systematic, planned communication programs run by professionals who understand deeply the organisation and the environment in which it operates.