Fact or Fiction: Outsourcing Communications Is a Good Idea

Posted on July 1, 2015

Kim Newcomer highlights the debate on whether to outsource your communications department. She has experience on both sides from her time at the City of Fort Collins, CO and from Slate Communications.

We don’t have the resources to hire staff.

Council doesn’t support increasing man power.

To demonstrate we’re fiscally responsible, our budget does not include any increase in FTEs.

We have to find a way to accomplish more, without additional staff.

We’ve all heard these phrases before. Regardless of your department or responsibility, I’m willing to bet at one time you’ve asked to increase your human resources, only to hear a version of the same answer: NO.

There is something about hiring staff that is very difficult for local government. Somewhere along the way, increases in staff have become synonymous with swollen budgets and egregious overhead costs. But we all know, it takes people to provide local services.
So what’s a local government to do?

In some areas – engineering services, planning, snow removal – hiring a third party to provide service is common place. But what about some of the less traditionally outsourced functions. What about outsourcing your communications department?

Admittedly, this a rare solution. Partially because some local governments are just now realizing how critical communication is to their success, and partially because it is a difficult expense to prioritize. I get it, if you have to choose between hiring a police officer and hiring a communications professional, the choice is pretty clear.

It’s circumstances like these where outsourcing seems to make the most sense. Whether you have a communications department of one or five, you are likely trying to figure out how to do more with less.

Here are a few common concerns we hear when talking to potential clients about communication services.

Myth: Hiring a firm is too expensive.

Truth: For less than a price of a full-time person, you can access the varied skills, depth, and flexibility of an entire firm. While you might have enough money to hire a skilled writer, he or she likely isn’t also equally as skilled in graphic design. Using a third party firm lets you take advantage of an entire department worth of expertise, without having to fund the entire department.

Takeaway: Outsourcing your communications department functions can actually save you money and improve the overall quality of your efforts.

Myth: A contractor will never be as responsive as in house staff.

Fact: If your contractor ignores your calls during a crisis, won’t respond to your texts, or just consistently blows you off, you’re working with the wrong firm. Communications is a real time, and your third-party contractor should know and respect that.

Takeaway: Everyone knows that this relationship is not monogamous. Your contractor will have other clients, and you might even use other contractors for specific projects. The most important thing is that both parties are clear about expectations and obligations, and that you hold each other accountable.

Myth: I can’t trust a contractor the same way I could a colleague.

Fact: Trust can only be formed through a solid relationship. True, when you first work with a communications firm you might be hesitant to let them into your inner circle. After all, local government officials deal with some pretty weighty issues. But think about when you first bring a new staff member on board. It takes time to get to know them and bring them into the loop. You have to trust your communicators; the more they know, the better job they will do figuring out how to best share information with the community.

Takeaway: Take a leap of faith! Invest in developing a relationship with your communications staff (in-house or a contractor). Make sure that they are sitting at the table so that they can help determine the most effective way to communicate.

Myth: We already have a communications team; they don’t need any help.

Fact: As a former in-house communications director, I can promise you, your team is overworked. They’re constantly trying to keep up with demands and would probably welcome a little help.

Takeaway: Find short-term projects (annual reports, targeted campaigns, etc.) that can be easily outsourced to create capacity for your in-house work group.

It Can Work

The idea of outsourcing a previously in-house department has been done before, and really successfully. Take SAFEbuilt for example; back in 1992, SAFEbuilt re-defined how local governments provide community development services. They essentially created a private, full-service building department and allowed local governments to access the expertise, diverse skill set, and level of service required by each community. For significantly less cost than hiring a full department staff, a local government can essentially receive the same services on an as-needed basis.

The same concept holds true with communications, if you’re willing to think differently.

Tips for Hiring a Communications Firm

  • Find the right firm: someone who gets local government and your unique needs
  • Start small: the great thing about contractors and firms is that you can fire them really easily when compared to staff. Start with a smaller project/contract so that you can test them out before you make larger commitments
  • Think of your communications firm as off-site staff: this mindset helps you delegate work and projects effectively.

Supplemental Reading

98% Think Local Government Is Boring*

Storytelling: Local Government’s WD-40 by Kim Newcomer, Slate Communications

City Staff Turned PR Firm, Meet Slate Communications


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