Leveson has sent a siezmic shift through the media industry. But it has a message for PR and in particular places considering ditching the senior comms expert.
Remember the Leveson Inquiry? It was all over the broadsheets for months. Celebrities, journalists and politicians all trooped before the cameras to face the laconic counsel to the Inquiry and the owlish Lord Justice whose name was on the door. Now he’s reported and there’s a lot of stuff to wade through. Four volumes in fact.
The headlines have focused on the recommendations that there should be beefed up press regulation with a statutory underpinning. This is important stuff for democracy but perhaps isn’t of that much practical use to the public sector comms professional.
I have set aside a little time to pour over the venerable judge’s words. I do like to see the outcomes of the workings of a legal mind (actually a team of legal minds here). Like any decent lawyer he marshals facts to create a compelling and engaging argument. Even so it’s probably not worth putting Bring up the Bodies down in preference.
In volume one he gives us an overview of press regulation from Henry VIII to the PCC. A great primer and probably worth a couple of questions in a pub quiz one day.
What you really should read is part G which looks at the relationship between the police and the press. Much of what is discussed in this section could be easily be read across into the the rest of the local public sector. It explores, with particular reference to the Met, the line between being sufficiently open to enable the press to scrutinise and report on the workings of public services and being too close to journalists. Now the links between top cops and tabloid reporters may seem rather distant from the world of local government press officers and the Marchford Gazette but the fundamental issues are the same.
There is also a discussion of the position of Head of Communications. Leveson notes that some police forces have professional civilian comms managers who report directly to their Chief Constables while others have police inspectors managing comms teams. This is directly analogous to the debate in many organisations about where comms should sit and the question of whether the comms boss should have a place on the board.
When I read this I gained the strong impression that Leveson had come out in favour of the professional comms manager. It turns out we all see what we want to see. I revisited it for this post and he is, in fact, annoyingly even handed.
Most interesting is this recommendadtion from the Lord Justice
“I recommend that it should be mandatory for ACPO rank officers to record all of their contact with the media, and for that record to be available publically for transparency and audit purposes. This record need be no more than a very brief note to the effect that a conversation has taken place and the subject matter of that conversation. Where the discussion involves a more significant operational or organisational matter, then it may be sensible for a more detailed note to be retained. Finally, in circumstances where policy or organisation matters may be on the agenda for discussion, it is good practice for a press officer also to be present.”
p986 section 4.8
If ACPO rank officers should record their contact with the media should not local authority directors, chief fire officers or health service managers?
The final sentence seems to me of considerable significance. Here is an appeal court justice placing the role of press officer as having an important role in maintaining the integrity of public service.
That’s something to put in your next performance appraisal.
Ben Proctor is head of comunications at Herefordshire County Council.