Policy vs Public Relations

This topic has been on my mind for a while and I don’t know what the solution is, but I think I am more open now to possibilities.

All libraries have rules and policies for their members and users, however, we also have situations where it is prudent, from a Public Relations perspective, to bend them. I am fortunate that I work in an environment where we are given that flexibility to a certain extent. There are some things that we can’t do, but we can always appeal to a higher level in those instances.

Be brave, break the rules

Be brave by Lisa Risager - Flickr June 26, 2009 - Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

In the middle of the year, when both Toy Story 3 and Shrek 4 came out at the movies, the cinemas at the shopping centre next door to us was frantically busy with the school holiday crowd. Some savvy parents, not wanting to wait in the amazingly long queues and potentially miss out on the session they wanted, headed over to the library to use our public internet to book their tickets online.

We were able to help a lot of people, because they had their membership card on them (our PCs are managed using PC Reservation) and there were no problems with their record. However, others walked out even more frustrated, when we couldn’t get them on the computer because they didn’t have their card on them or there were issues on those cards which couldn’t be overridden. I don’t blame staff for this, as they were dealing with a big crowd of extra people on top of the normal crowd.

But it got me thinking and I realised that if we had been a bit better prepared, or open to the possibility, we could have freed up a PC from the booking system, just to assist people in getting their tickets – without having to worry about membership cards etc.

Yes, we did get some new members out of the process, some updated details from existing borrowers, but we also alienated others, because of our policy, when something that would have been reasonably easy to implement could have been brilliant PR.

On a smaller scale, we do this sort of thing everyday. Let someone book the Internet without their card, waive fines (with strict instructions that its a one off), but way too many times, they come in the next time, again without their card or again expecting fines to be wiped, because someone did it last time.

Its a judgement call and you hope you make the right one, because if you don’t, you are making things all the more difficult for the next staff member who has to deal with them.

PR is a good thing, but so are policy and rules. Our rules are reasonable – they are trying to ensure equity for all library users, whilst also protecting our staff, our collections, services and facilities. So its a fine line, between good PR and policy and one that I will continue to be challenged in deciphering.

Would be interested to hear your standpoint and stories on this issue. Is there ever a time when PR trumps policy (I know there are plenty of instances where the reverse is true)? And is it ever clear?

3 comments

    • Helen on October 18, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I have trouble with this one as a manager of a library, to support the staff who enforce the rules and also to provide a good experience for the customer. We encourage staff to have the initiative to know when to bend the rules but as you say, if you do it once it makes it harder for the next person who deals with the same client. No easy answer

    • Tamara on October 19, 2010 at 7:08 am

    Your points are well taken. My thought on the matter is that good public library policies are designed to meet the needs of most of the customers most of the time, while also ensuring that library resources are available for all who want access. The occasional customer will have a genuine need that is not met within the bounds of policy. Someone on the way to a job interview who needs to print a resume but has an overdue book blocking access; a student who needs a book beyond the borrowing and renewal terms to finish a paper; a family that has recently moved and mistakenly packed away some items – now overdue – and wants to check out a few more titles, these are all examples that come to mind. I think that empowering staff to work with and help these customers who need library services helps staff to become true service professionals, and not just enforcers of rules. In our system, we require that exceptions be noted in customer records, to document for the next staff person what has already been done to help the customer. This strategy works well in most cases, and our customers really appreciate how we’re able to go above and beyond.

    • Vic on October 28, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Hi Michelle,
    In my opinion policy and public relations must be harmonized, just like strictness and gentleness. Policy is important because it is where we are organized and it also shows strength and power of a system. Public relation is also important because it is how we get link to people. So it should meet in a halfway.

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