With cuts cutting deeper it's time to ask some deep questions of how to communicate them.
by Dan Slee
Are we better off saying the glass is half full? Or empty? Or pretending it's full?
That was the iconoclastic view of London Fire Brigade's head of comms Richard Stokoe.
Back at the annual LGComms Academy earlier in the year he spoke eloquently about the challenges the public sector is facing and his take on what it should do. We shouldn't pretend that things are fine when they're not, he says. Neither should it try and bea cheerleader for business as usual because business as usual is over.
Richard pointed to the example of the fire strikes in the capital in 2011 when far fewer appliances were available for use. Normally, there are 167 covering the capital but on the day of the strike just 27 were mustered. That's around 20 per cent of the usual number and the potential for problems it posed was immense.
So, instead of saying how fine everything was London Fire Brigade instead pointed to the number they would have during the strikes and asked people to be more responsible as the level of service would be so much different.
PR was targeted at the areas of London with a historically high number of incidents.
What was the outcome?
A thin red line?
Zulu Dawn with fire engines?
Actually, no. Fewer calls.
According to the stats, 999 calls were 32 per cent lower than 2004 when Bonfire Night last fell on a Friday. Smaller fires were 56 per cent lower than the 2004 yardstick and 30 per cent down on the previous year.
It's an approach that goes against the grain for many public relations people. Shouldn't we be doing all we can to talk up what we do?
Certainly, his organisation took a bit of a battering for being so honest.
But I think Richard Stokes has a point.
If we're doing less we should be telling people. If we're not doing services at all we need to be telling people.
We risk far more in the long term by pretending that nothing has changed. We need a slab of honest realism. Residents would be better informed.
That's something that public sector comms people are having to wrestle with up and down the country.