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Government's public relations teams rapidly expanding

Jul 24, 2019

The government's communication and PR teams are rapidly expanding in size and cost to the taxpayer.

The public relations industry says the growth is necessary as people expect more information, ever more quickly.

But critics say the extra layers are hindering, not helping the public get accurate information, particularly as at the same time the number of journalists is shrinking.

RNZ has crunched the numbers the latest annual reviews to Parliament from two dozen major government departments and agencies, and three district health boards.

The 2017/218 reviews show some have doubled the numbers of communications staff in a single year, some are stable, and overall the trend is up.

Overall, annual reviews show public sector communications staff numbers rising 60 percent since 2013.

In most cases this does not include staff who handle Official Information Act requests.

Salary costs are up 45 percent, compared to wage inflation of 14 percent. Salaries above $100,000 are not uncommon - for example the 12 Education Ministry communication staff earn more than that.

Pattrick Smellie, who has worked in PR and government and now runs the BusinessDesk news agency, points out that there are disadvantages to large communication teams.

Pattrick Smellie runs the BusinessDesk news agency. Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

"I have always been a bit cautious to think that that's all about control of information to the media," he said.

"Some of it is just that there's a lot more communicating going on.

"What is the value that they are absolutely sure they are getting from this number of people in these roles? I'd be much more concerned about whether, in some cases anyway, you've got so many people in the team, that it's not possible to act nimbly, with the agility that any good comms team needs to be able to act with, particularly in response to public inquiry and journalistic inquiry."

The was a culture of risk aversion in the public sector, he said.

"I do observe a tendency in public sector organisations, generally, to [have] very large feedback loops.

"You get a person who does a piece of work, they end up sending it to five other people all of who have different ideas about what it should be like. And there's a lot of wheels spinning that goes on as a result of having a large team that is relatively indecisive."

Public Relations Institute (PRINZ) chief executive Elaine Koller said these were signs the government was listening more, not spinning things more.

"Spin is a really unfair description of what public relations is," Ms Koller said.

Public Relations Institute of NZ chief executive Elaine Koller. Photo: Supplied / Elaine Koller

"We've all got increasing expectations that we're going to get access to information right now via the channel of our choice, and to be able to deliver that there is an increasing requirement in the number of staff ... and communications is not just about pushing messages out there, it's also about receiving messages."

The annual reviews presented to parliamentary select committees are blunt measures of quantity, not quality.

The Ministry of Health doubled its communications staff in one year from eight to 16 in 2018 - but said it was obliged to respond to keen public interest.

Salary costs for Inland Revenue doubled in five years to $4.8m as it added more expensive contractors - but says they are vital to help run its mass overhaul project - even if the highest-paid is on $300,000-plus.

Restructures are common, aided by the government lifting its cap on core public sector numbers. MFAT for instance has added a five-person digital team, and its communications staff numbers and total salaries are up by more than two-thirds since 2013.

Massey University associate professor of journalism Jim Tully said having more people putting out more information was not a win.

"There's been a huge emphasis on trying to get the best possible coverage and to minimise anything negative, I mean, that's patently clear," he said. "In fact, it's an exception if an organisation doesn't have a media policy that is highly restrictive."

Mr Smellie agreed, saying it was becoming more difficult to speak to decision-makers and people at the helm of policy-making.

"Getting through the barrier of the comms people to someone who actually is a subject matter expert, has become far more difficult," he said.

However, Ms Koller said media handlers made up just a tenth of a typical communications teams, and their numbers were static.

"But where we are seeing a significant increase it is in internal communication, specifically related to quite large change projects, and increasing numbers working in the stakeholder-community-iwi engagement space," she said, adding the public-sector expansion was not mirrored in the private sector.

The numbers available to the public are themselves unreliable. Under a previous cap on core staff numbers, departments hid communications staff under different categories and were only now reassigning them, Ms Koller said.

They are now using more contractors, but their salaries aren't always accounted for in the annual reviews.

A government push for much clearer reporting on spending on all types of contractors is yet to filter through fully.

The State Services Commission for its part estimates communications staff numbers grew only 18 percent since 2014 (see SSC figures below).

But it counts differently, and only covers departments, not agencies; so it does not count the Transport Agency, which doubled its communications staff from 30 to 60 in 2018, nine of whom are on $120,000-plus a year and one on $170,000-plus.

Internal Affairs said its staff grew just 6 percent, not the 36 percent its annual reviews showed - but then admitted it was not including contractors.

Information about salaries is patchy too.

Only seven out of the two dozen annual reviews answer questions about salaries; these show six out of every 10 communications staff earns more than $100,000 a year.

By contrast, a 2019 PR Institute survey shows 70 percent of practitioners across private and public sectors earn under $100,000.

Part of this could be explained by public sector communications staff having to handle a broader range of work, Ms Koller said.

Such salaries have become common in the last 15 years, but were also out of kilter, Mr Smellie said.

He could compete with $100,000 plus, but not $170,000, he said.

"And I have been hearing anecdotally, both from Parliament where comms staff have been lost to government agencies, and from private sector public relations practitioners, that they can't compete with some of the salaries that government agencies are prepared to pay.

"Which says to me that there is a lot of demand for experienced comms people and maybe not a lot of people who are good at it. But I also think there are some cases of people who are not that good at it who are getting paid a hell of a lot of money."

By comparison, journalism continues to slip in what it pays, who it attracts and who it retains.

In three New Zealand media organisations, starting pay for a senior journalist is around $70,000 and for most staff would peak in the $90,000 range.

One of the factors behind this was the country's university journalism courses being folded in to more popular communications degrees, associate professor Jim Tully said.

Another is that government PR people have fewer journalists asking them questions. In 2001 the Census counted about 2200 journalists working in New Zealand; by 2013 that had dropped to 1500, who were outnumbered eight to one by PR people (compared to two to one in 2001).

"An overworked, under-resourced journalist is always going to be susceptible to taking a story or a statement delivered on a plate - it's happening on a day-to-day sense," Mr Tully said.

A shift in people's preparedness to pay for news has been detected by Mr Smellie, who's attuned to such things since his agency's future depends on it.

"I'm a long-term optimist on journalism," he said.

But what about the imbalance with PR and communications?

"If ministers want to do something about it, they would have to direct their agencies not to offer such generous salaries to communications people," he said.

"They could take a view that communications roles salaries in the public sector have started now to become highly competitive with the private sector and that maybe that doesn't need to be the case."

Ministries' responses

RNZ asked half a dozen departments and agencies, particularly those with high growth in communications and PR, for interviews but accepted. Instead, their communications teams issued statements addressing whether their numbers and salaries are rising too quickly and are value for money.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

"The change in communications positions ... over the last five years reflects significant change in the Ministry as a whole. The Government is undertaking a broad and diverse range of work in the Pacific Reset and is significantly increasing investment in overseas development and aid. MFAT has expanded its international footprint by increasing its overseas posts to 63 and the Ministry is the lead agency for APEC 2021, the largest-ever event hosted by the New Zealand Government. Since 2015, the Ministry overall has employed 170 more full-time staff.

"Public interest in trade and diplomatic issues, and in New Zealand's role in the Pacific region has lifted markedly in recent years, calling for a shift in the way the Ministry connects with people. To meet this need for greater information, key changes have been made to MFAT's communications function:

A Digital Team (five staff) was established in 2015 ... the Ministry now has more than 100 digital channels (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn) across its network of 63 posts ... in addition to corporate and other specialist social media and websites run centrally.

Consolidation of the Communication Division enabled the Ministry to reduce the use of contractors, and increased the number of full time staff.

The Pacific Reset and growth of Overseas Development and Aid budget in 2018/19 led to the appointment of three additional communications staff.

MFAT recruits staff with the right level of experience required for each role, with remuneration consistent to that experience."

Department of Internal Affairs:

DIA "is a complex and diverse agency responsible for delivering a wide range of products, functions and key services to the community. ... passports, citizenship services and other identity products, ... gambling regulation, digital safety and censorship compliance .. we also support major national visits and events to New Zealand. Our Communications team supports DIA to effectively communicate information about these ... through a wide range of channels and tools, including stakeholder engagement, marketing, social and online media and supporting VIP visits ... across multiple locations in New Zealand and in Australia and the UK.

Our Ministerial and Secretariat Services division also employs ... approximately 36 Press Secretaries and media support staff who work solely for those Ministers' offices.

"... in 2016 a change programme ...resulted in a new communications model being introduced to better support and service changing needs.

"Internal Affairs is committed to employing the best people available ... We consider the salaries are a prudent and fair reflection of the senior and specialist skills and knowledge needed to attract and retain talented people."

Ministry of Education:

"In the past few years the Ministry has experienced increased interest in our work ... demonstrated by the roughly 1700 media enquires we receive annually and the 43,000 responses ... from New Zealanders of all walks of life. The central communications team continues to represent a very small proportion of Ministry staff. Over the last five years these staff have made up roughly 0.5% of all staff. In five years we have added two new staff to our central communications team. These staff have had pay increases amounting to, on average, about 3 percent annually. Twelve of our 15 central communications staff were earning $100,000 or more in June 2018. This includes senior managers. Staff are paid in line with their experience, position and market rates.

"In addition to our to annual review reporting to Select Committee we also provide the numbers of staff ... to the State Service Commission ... The codes for these broad occupational groups are assigned when a role is created but are not necessarily aligned to the work these staff do, nor are all these staff part of the central communications team."

Department of Corrections:

"Corrections is New Zealand's largest core government department with 10,000 staff managing 30,000 offenders in the community and around 10,000 prisoners on any given day. ... In recent years we have changed the way our communications function operates to ensure that we can provide timely and accurate information to our staff, stakeholders, media and the public. There have been notable changes to the media landscape, including the 24 hour news cycle, and the use of social media, and in order to meet these needs we now provide a 24/7 service, including on weekends and public holidays.

"We don't pay additional allowances for those staff working on call at nights, weekends or public holidays - this is built into their total remuneration.

We have almost 28,000 followers across our social media platforms, which helps us to tell the public about the work we do, and recruit new staff. We regularly receive messages from a range of people including victims, the families of prisoners and members of the community. Because of the nature of our work we are required to monitor these messages in case they relate to safety or security concerns that need to be acted on immediately.

Of the 18 full-time equivalent staff, four were in our around the clock media and social media team. The total also includes a communications person from each of the statutorily independent New Zealand Parole Board and the independent Office of the Inspectorate, and four regional communications staff who provide communications support to local sites and initiatives."

NZ Transport Agency:

"The bulk of ... communications staff are involved in community engagement activities ... who were previously based within project teams [and] have been brought in-house to work as one team. ...The Transport Agency has hundreds of projects across the country ... Our team ensures that we meet our required legal and statutory obligations such as consenting, and that the projects and programmes .. are appropriate, relevant and suitable for our communities.

The NZ Transport Agency's commitment to best practice engagement was recognised last year, with the Northern Corridor Improvements project winning the IAP2 International Project of the Year.

"The Transport Agency uses job sizing to determine remuneration bands and uses data from remuneration specialist consulting firm Korn Ferry to ensure that our remuneration is aligned to other Public Sector Agencies performing the same functions. The Transport Agency remuneration is reviewed annually and uses the Public Sector Median as the midpoint for remuneration bands."

Ministry of Health:

"The Ministry ... is very aware of the need to be a careful steward of taxpayers' funds as well as to balance the important role it plays in providing information and comment to maintain public trust and confidence in health services ... which requires appropriately trained and experienced staff. Current staffing in the Communications Group is reflective of ongoing high levels of media and public interest in health news and consumer information and the Ministry's obligation to be responsive. As an example, during the working week 24-28 June, 35 media responses were provided over five days to national, regional and specialist health media.

"The Ministry pays market rates for its staff, which are checked through the use of an company which specialises in this ... In terms of the number of communications staff, the Ministry is in step with other similar large Government agencies. Note that the Ministry's 2018 Annual Review response includes three communications managers which are often excluded in reporting by other agencies.

"The increase in staffing since 2016/17 arose from three new positions within the Communications Team following a restructure which acknowledged the team was under-resourced in media, internal communications, stakeholder communications and social media to communicate effectively with staff, stakeholders and the public. The other three positions were in business units supporting key Ministry work programmes, such as bowel screening, disability and pay equity."

Ministry of Justice:

"As well as providing the administration for the courts, we have a large legislative programme and host a number of functions and programmes such as the Joint Venture on Family and Sexual Violence, Te Arawhiti - Maori Crown Relations and Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata: Safe and Effective Justice. Our expanding work programme means that we have had to hire extra resource to provide effective communication services.

" ... the Ministry may from time to time hire communications specialists to assist with peak workloads or to provide services that are not available in house. These temporary staff are not included in our total staffing numbers.

"Recent bargaining and industrial action has resulted in the Ministry reviewing its pay bands .. to lift salary levels at the Ministry to match market rates. As a result, salaries across the Ministry will rise in the 2019/20 financial year."

Department of Conservation:

"The number of communications and media staff .. has remained relatively stable in recent years. The Marketing team numbers 10 staff including the manager. This team leads DOC's information design and marketing of visitor management and safety which includes copywriting for web/brochures. DOC also works with a number of large commercial partners including Air NZ, Meridan and Kiwibank on specific conservation programmes ... All of the partnerships are supported by the marketing team.

"The Media and Communications team numbers 17 staff including the manager. This team deals with all media inquiries - approximately 200 each month and provides communication planning and support for DOC operations regionally (1 advisor for each of the 9 DOC regions) and national programmes of work.

"The Internal Communications team numbers three staff including the manager. This team supports ... in communicating with DOC's 2,000 plus staff.

As the State Services Commission advised, its definition for communications staff is very broad and is not the same definition used by DOC when providing information to Select Committee for the Annual Review."

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