Public vs Private

By The Drum, Administrator

October 20, 2005 | 9 min read


Postcards from the Frontier

If you ever tried to get a new business meeting with the Head of Public Affairs at NHS Health Scotland and were gently swatted away by a charming, but steely secretary, then I’m very, very, sorry.

I mean it.

Very, very, sorry indeed.

Had I known that the principle of re-incarnation was true and in fact in a matter of weeks I would be the one phoning you, then I would have offered you meetings, coffe and encouraging and warm chat. God forbid, I’d even have offered you a piece of work or two.

So, if I ever spurned you, please enjoy a warm glow, or at least an ironic smile at my expense. But now I’m one of you, I have crossed the divide. Twenty one years in the public sector, man and boy, and I am now adrift in the cold waters of the private sector. And not even afloat on a big seaworthy liner of a cosy private sector bureaucracy, but the tiny fishing smack that is a start up company.

Indeed, had I sold up everything and bought a mackerel fishing boat, the culture change could not have been greater.

But despite the terror of the sleigh ride down the oceanic swells, the exhilaration of the wind in what’s left of my hair, the escape to the wild open spaces has opened up a whole new world to me.

Do I miss anything from the old days in the public sector? Well, not the infinite planning horizons and the office vendettas or even the fascinating meetings called for the specific purpose of planning future meetings.

Nor do I yearn for the sense of powerlessness which can overcome even the most ebullient when decisions are made at a Kafka-esque distance from the front line. But criticism of the place you have just left can often have the odour of sour grapes.

My departure from the corridors of very little power has, conversely, left me with a new respect for the public sector. A respect particularly for the resilience of the people who do fabulous work in the communication departments of public bodies.

Professionals who battle against decision making processes modelled on the Hapsburg Empire and who have to juggle objectives so complex and contradictory that even remembering what they were in the first place is a feat of intellectual acrobatics.

For here in my new position the objectives are refreshingly clear. Survive. Eat. This week.

A hundred years ago I was a teacher and I used to blithely say that if you weren’t learning then you weren’t really alive. Of course, I didn’t really understand how true that was.

The biggest change for me in the last four months has been a learning curve of Eiger North Face dimensions. The real difference is not moving from one sector to the other, but moving from your comfort zone to a place that is not comfortable or even familiar and learning as you go day by day and even hour by hour.

I don’t mean relearning my trade. Marketing and public relations is the same no matter what sector you’re in. Applying what I learned in the world of health to problems that seem very far removed is not difficult and in fact can create new insights and understandings.

What is new is how people now respond to me and how I respond to them. No longer being a client is the interesting thing.

Relating to people in an entirely different way is the most illuminating part of the whole experience of changing sectors. People who I have known for 20 years, but always when I was in the role of client or potential client, react to me in a more human way.

Perhaps it because we are being honest, or perhaps I no longer have the protective clothing that comes from having a budget and representing an organisation, but I now interact with people in a more direct way.

Before I get too dewy eyed, it is also true to say that I now operate in an atmosphere where long periods of exhilaration are interrupted by the odd moment of terror. And if I now believe in re-incarnation, my interest in world religion has also extended to a new belief in the power of the occasional prayer.

Martin Raymond



Martin Raymond was head of public affairs at NHS Health Scotland, which is the rebranded HEBS. He left to launch Cloudline Consulting earlier this year.

Public and private sectors - what’s the difference?

Like most working people these days, my career hasn’t exactly followed a straight line.

During the past 20 years, I’ve worked for two local authorities, a university, a PR consultancy and that favourite Aunt Sally of right-wing commentators, a quango.

Now and again, a colleague will ask what seems to be a simple question, but which stumps me just about every time – what differences are there between working in the public and private sectors?

Just to lay my cards on the table, and buy a little thinking time, let me offer a quick career history.

I left Glasgow University with an ambition to be a journalist – blame Woodward and Bernstein – which almost immediately got sidelined by my first decent job offer, as trainee press officer for the now-defunct Tayside Regional Council.

After three years there, I moved south for a stint in arts promotion in Fife – for another organisation which no longer exists, now I come to think of it.

After Fife, I changed tack and spent a year teaching English in the Basque Country, before returning to Scotland and joining Dundee University – which, thankfully, was still around, last time I checked.

That led to an invitation to join Dundee consultancy Prospect PR – yup, still going – where I worked for a range of clients over the next six years and might have remained if it hadn’t been for the opportunity to realise a long-held desire to relocate to the Highlands. This I did in 2000 when I took up my present post as head of communications for Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

So, after all that, you might think an answer to the simple question above would trip off the tongue easily. But the truth is, from my experience at least, the two sectors have far fewer differences and much more in common than is often recognised.

In the past 20 years or so, the public sector, for all kinds of reasons, has had to adopt many of the values which at one time would have been seen as belonging to the private sector.

The old stereotypes have been demolished. Anyone who still believes that the private sector is all about profit, risk-taking, competitiveness and efficiency, while the public sector is slow, safe, worthy and bureaucratic is stuck in some 1970s time warp.

For those working in PR, the challenges are more or less identical. Deadlines must be met, news releases must be accurate and concise, crises need sensitive, rapid handling and so on.

Nor is it accurate to say, as some do, that the public sector doesn’t sell anything to customers. A publicly funded theatre, tourist attraction or cinema, for instance, has to be just as creative as any privately-run venue in devising ways to put bums on seats.

And the drive for value for money in the public sector is every bit as fierce as the private sector profit motive.

One difference I have encountered is in the attitude towards accountability. There’s widespread recognition in the public sector that journalists perform an important role and that media questions should be answered honestly and quickly. It’s a generalisation, but I do think private firms often have more leeway in choosing where, when and how they need to engage with the press.

A more marked distinction, though, is between in-house communications posts and consultancy work (or ‘out-house’ as I recently heard someone say without any apparent irony).

There are several things I miss about consultancy. It’s invigorating to work for a range of clients involved in different fields and small firms can usually move quickly to get things done. Need a photographer or designer? Just pick up the phone.

In-house there’s always the audit trail to think of, so more consideration has to be given to written briefs and formal contracts, even for relatively small jobs.

It can also be a struggle in-house to retain your objectivity – that sense of distance which a PR practitioner needs in order to judge how a particular course of action is likely to be viewed by an external audience.

On the other hand, the in-house practitioner builds up a depth of knowledge about his or her employer which a consultant would be hard pressed to match. And working for colleagues rather than external clients can often mean you’re in the loop to avert a potential crisis, rather than simply being called in to help clear up the resulting mess.

With employment markets nowadays much more fluid than they’ve ever been, there’s no doubt that more and more PR and marketing career paths will cross over between sectors.

That’s got to be a healthy thing. And for anyone currently in two minds about making the move from private to public sector, I’d say come on in, you have nothing to lose but your prejudice.

Oh, and your Christmas bonus. Damn!

Chris Roberts

Head of Communications

Highlands and Islands Enterprise


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