Depending on how you count, 10-20 percent of all Canadian public relations/communication (PR/C) professionals work for the federal government and its various arm’s length agencies. Yet, even within the ranks of the corner offices in the federal government, its evolution as a community remains virtually unknown.
Overall, this community is larger than that in any other public, private or non-profit organization and larger than the memberships of the two biggest public relations/communication associations: the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) and the International Association of Business Communicators.
We realized that the community’s broad history had not been researched and told. Our subsequent study, presented this past summer at an academic conference at the University of Bournemouth and soon to be published, focused on three of the factors that influenced the reasons why the community evolved the way it did. We should note that all three authors had been involved in the federal government’s communication community for most of the last 25 years, either as leaders within the community or as management consultants to community leaders. We each had made our own contributions to the community’s history.
First, we examined the introduction of two government of Canada (GoC) Communication Policies, one in 1988 and the second in 2002, and the roles played by the community in the development of the content of these policies and in their subsequent approval and introduction.
Second, the paper looked at two central government agencies, the Privy Council Office (PCO) and the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), as the loci of community leadership and the roles they played in fostering a sense of community.
Third, we considered infrastructures built by community members themselves to improve management practices across the community and to provide programs for community development.
Each of these became a separate research stream. In each stream, we analysed contributions to the strategic and professional evolution of the community. We defined strategic as two-fold: (1) managing the communication function strategically; and (2) the communication function being part of the strategic management of the government department. Then we defined professionalism as the communication community achieving legitimization as a specialized functional community through external recognition of unique knowledge, set of skills and common standards.
In conducting our study, we identified and gathered documents dating back to the 1960s. We held interviews with former communication professionals who were actively involved in the community and we conducted an online survey open to current but long-serving as well as retired communication executives and managers. Our method, therefore, was narration both written and verbal, with documentation shared voluntarily by participants.
We also should note that this study covered a period of time that saw different cycles of investment and disinvestment in the public service. PR/C budgets and the absolute numbers of employees grew in the 1980s. Extensive downsizing in the 1990s, to be followed again by significant growth in the size of government and in communication demand in the 2000s, followed this. By the end of 2010, the federal government was entering another period of sizable cuts to PR/C budgets and employees. When we wrote this paper in the spring of 2012, the communication community had been affected by significant resource cuts, with more planned.
What did we find out about the strategic and professional evolution of the community?
First, we concluded that the two GoC Communications Policies did contribute to the strategic evolution of the community, particularly for managing the communication branch strategically. Heads of communication now had a set of formal standards by which to integrate the department’s communication function and to manage it holistically. The policies described the roles and responsibilities for which they were accountable. While it took the community two attempts at formulating and promoting policy before formal regulations were approved, the strategic acceptance of the community has become dependent on the enactment of these policy requirements. On the other hand, the Policy, in itself, did not contribute greatly to the professionalization of the community.
Second, we concluded that, with the exception of brief periods where the Privy Council Office advocated for more strategic insights from communication branches, neither PCO nor TBS contributed greatly to the strategic evolution of the community. PCO and TBS provided little support to help a given communication branch manage strategically or be immersed in the strategic management of the department. And, although PCO and TBS had their hearts in the right places, they, ultimately, did not have the resources (especially in the disinvestment period of the 1990s) or influence to achieve the critical mass of training and professional development activities needed to professionalize the community in any great way. While they offered, or partnered with others to offer, courses, their efforts were typically one-off and not part of an overall program.
Finally, we concluded that, while leaders of the various associations the community fostered, such as the Federal Communications Council (FCC) and the Information Services Institute (ISI), played roles in the strategic evolution of the community, these associations of practitioners themselves did not have the resources to sustain such a role. Although certain leaders were strong advocates, they did not have the influence with their peers – or their peers’ departments – to ensure that 100 percent of federal government communication branches were managed strategically. The current association incarnation, the Communications Community Office (CCO), does not perform such a role.
But, we also concluded that these associations – most important the CCO – have fostered the professional evolution of the communication community. Their presence was of special importance in times following periods of disinvestment, when the average age and years of experience of staff members dipped. The community faced a challenge in the 2000s when a shortage of qualified Information Services staff meant that officers with limited experience and knowledge rose quickly through the ranks, without proper training in government communication.
It is our contention, then, that it was the two government of Canada communication policies, but primarily the second, and the professional development driven by the community, primarily from the CCO, which were the main factors driving the positive strategic and professional evolution of the community. PCO and TBS, vitally important for the strategic and professional evolution of the federal communication community in the 1980s and early 1990s, acted as initial interlocutors and mechanisms for integrating community initiatives but their influence waned from the mid 1990s onward. Likewise, the community bodies in place before the establishment of the Communication Community Office had a similar positive influence on community development, but they never had the level of resources needed to sustain their efforts year to year.
The greater PR/communication community in Canada can learn from the two factors that positively influenced the strategic and professional evolution of the federal government’s communications community. First, a detailed and sophisticated policy is crucial to a community’s strategic advancement. Second, professional acceptance is dependent on the community’s own efforts. It should be noted that it was the federal government’s PR/C community that self-funded its own professional development. Community legitimization through external recognition will only occur if the community itself sets high standards for its own profession.
Fraser Likely is president and managing partner of Likely Communication Strategies. Margaret Rudolf is principal of MRudolf Associates and formerly a senior communication policy advisor in PCO and TBS. Jean Valin is principal with Valin Strategic Communications and held senior executive positions in the federal communication community.