Organisations in both public and private sectors are increasingly looking to procure communications and engagement as an outsourced service, or through a service agreement. This makes sense during times of financial challenge – outsourcing can provide flexibility and means you don’t pay for an expensive resource when you don’t need it.
But there are other benefits, too.
Firstly, performance management and reporting typically forms part of the contract. This can be helpful for executives who are responsible for the communications function – but who may not have specialist expertise and knowledge, or have competing priorities which mean there is little headspace for proper oversight of the function.
Your contract should provide you with access to Board-level communications expertise, strategic counsel and crisis advice cost-effectively, by including it alongside an operational communications contract, which means you can pay for expertise as you use it – rather than as an expensive additional retainer. Even better if your adviser brings expertise from beyond your sector.
Secondly, an outside perspective can be useful. The challenges now faced across public services are common in other sectors too, plus increasingly complex partnerships with government, commercial providers and the third sector means that a mixed contract team with broader experience can be more effective.
So if you are considering procuring a service, rather than hiring an individual, how can you get the best out of a communications provider?
We believe the most effective partnerships are based on these principles:
1. Be clear – and specific – about what you want, ideally expressed as a measurable outcome
By all means state your broad-brush vision and value statements, because they are important. “We want to be the employer of choice in Anywhereshire”, “We put patients first”, “We aim to provide high quality and safe services”. Of course you do. However, these are far too vague for any professional services firm to work out your priorities.
To get the best out of your communications support, you need to give thought to objectives. This means deciding which of your array of different stakeholders you are prioritising (segment), being clear what your most pressing communication challenges are (prioritise), and setting out the support you need – including what “fantastic” looks like (specify).
If you are the client director, you must secure leadership engagement and support for priorities. Your agency cannot do this any more than your accountant can make decisions about how you should allocate your budget.
2. Dialogue with potential providers
Early discussion before finalising your brief will pay dividends. Your specification will be clearer and stronger if it is co-produced with potential contractors. However well you prepare, there will always be questions which are better resolved through discussion (“does that mean…?”, “what if…?”).
In our experience, getting everyone on the same page from the outset is the biggest single success factor.
3. Trust and chemistry
Procure small until you get to know each other. You will usually get the best service through ongoing relationships with suppliers who know you well. This need not mean a single, all-embracing, multiple year contract, which ties everyone in to a model which cannot flex as needs change, but does mean a high-trust relationship in which both your team and the contract team have invested.
4. Even as an outsourced service, work as though the contractor is part of your team
If you can, ensure that your provider is based in your office, at least for some of the time. And make sure to involve them in general planning and performance meetings – not only those directly related to communication.
The financial challenges facing public servies, coupled with the specialist communication and engagement required to deliver system transformation, mergers, new service models and public confidence in major system changes, mean that the “do it all in-house” model may not be sustainable into the future.
This will require clients and contractors alike to become smarter at doing more with less.