Thursday, February 19, 2009

West Berkshire Council stabs itself in the foot with knife crime PR blunder

Public sector public relations is always a challenge. Your organisation represents the people, who by the very nature of democracy are unlikely to be universal in their approval - which is why it beggars belief that West Berkshire Council would stab itself in the foot by appearing soft on knife crime - in the middle of a trial of five teenagers who stabbed a local lad to death.

Newbury Today sets the incredulous tone with this article, an interpretation that must surely have been blindingly obvious would be the outcome.

Before starting Morgan PR, when I was a press officer with Thames Valley Police in Newbury and Reading, I co-operated with the media as much as possible in the very real expectation that at some point in the future I would need their co-operation in return. Mistakes are made in the public sector and being able to buy and hour or two of patience from a journalist who has scented blood - often literally - can be invaluable.

Day to day it simply bought you the benefit of the doubt. Journalists would trust you and give you the space to do the job of representing the police rather than reacting to the media. It also avoided stand offs such as that which happened at the Oxford Mail where they printed blank spaces 'where crimes we are not being told about should be reported' Ouch!

Now the Newbury Weekly News, the printed parent of the online Newbury Today takes a justifiably challenging approach to the seemingly arrogant stance so readily adopted by West Berkshire's elected councillors and often the council's officers too. Whether it is refusing to apologise for the roadworks causing traffic jams (surely you can feel sorry, without actually saying sorry?) or simply refusing to accept that the rising bollards that keep destroying errant vehicles might be legally sound, but morally unfair? Keeping them in place when it is clear they catch out motorists and wreck their cars is a complete nonsense.

Then there are crisis management case we have managed that defy belief at the way the council has behaved, often spending vast amounts of taxpayers' money with no obvious benefit.

So, in the latest chapter West Berkshire Council says it is against the public interest to presume to prosecute shops that sell knives to children. Newbury Today reports:

Officials said that under Crown Prosecution Service guidelines, prosecuting shops selling knives to children may not always be in the public interest. Presuming in favour of prosecution could “cast doubt” on whether each case was being assessed on its merits, trading standards officers said.
Does that sound like nonsense to anyone else? Surely you catch someone selling knives to kids they presume to prosecute until the merits suggest otherwise. Not so hard, is it?

Now for our PR lesson in all this! What should West Berkshire Council have done?

It really isn't difficult to work out! How about "Promised to investigate", or "Address this matter with urgency". Something to buy time and allow the situation to diffuse. They could have said they would investigate and simply shown they were aware of how strongly people felt - especially while under the scrutiny of a reporter expected to provide a story! Or with the proper planning could have anticipated the issue would up and bite them and avoided the controversy all together by doing the right thing for the community.

Still, look on the bright side - at least Noel Edmonds wasn't there, just waiting for another opportunity to rant on Noel's HQ!

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