One of the good things about local government comms is that it can be varied. So, when flooding hit this officer rose to the challenge.
by Eva Duffy
The police van outside the Salvation Army centre was the only clue that this residential suburb was about to become the epicentre of a crisis response involving hundreds of evacuees, scores of volunteers and dozens of organisations. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the hamster.
Fifteen minutes earlier, I was at my desk anticipating a normal day at the office. Now, this is probably a good time to point out that normal is a very relative concept in a local government media team.
We operate along lines familiar to anyone who’s ever set foot in a newsroom with unpredictability our constant companion.
At 9.45am on the morning of Thursday 22 November, we got the call telling us that for the second time this year a local caravan site was being evacuated because of flooding risks. My first task, immediately assigned, was to get to the building designated the reception centre for those evacuees who didn’t have family or friends to stay with. It would be my responsibility to make sure that arrangements were put in place to manage the inevitable media interest: designate a space for reporters to work, identify who shouldn’t be filmed or photographed - whether for legal reasons or personal preference - and line up some interviewees. News crews would get what they came for and interviewees would get their 15 minutes of fame, albeit in less than ideal circumstances.
And most importantly, the small army of volunteers and public sector employees that made up the emergency response team would be free to get on with their job providing a place of refuge for Northampton’s temporarily displaced.
Sounds relatively straightforward, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, this assignment carried a certain amount of baggage with it because the previous time round, the evacuated residents of the caravan park had made a string of complaints about the antics of a particular television news reporter. Whether there was any long-term impact on the evacuees’ perception of the media remained to be seen.
There was a calm but industrious atmosphere as I walked into the reception centre where a dozen Salvation Army volunteers had already mobilised. Everybody was actively engaged in getting the building ready: carpets were being vacuumed, tables assembled and chairs unstacked.
Kitchen sounds emanated from a wall hatch: kettles boiling, cutlery clinking and saucepans clattering. “We’ve got a real chef this time,” said a cheerful voice behind me. Turning round I recognised the voice’s owner, a woman who’d been evacuated the first time round and consequently for three days last May her home was the hall of a nearby leisure centre. “We’re the first ones here,” she declared proudly.
The next ten minutes saw a steady stream of faces familiar from the May operation including the unflappable emergency planning officer with overall responsibility for the reception centre and the ever- buoyant St John’s Ambulance team. Our numbers were boosted further by the arrival of two police community support officers who looked to me to be barely out of nappies but over the course of the day proved their credentials beyond doubt with their good humoured people management skills.
By 10.45am, the evacuated residents started to arrive: registration forms were filled in, needs assessed and identification wristbands issued. Even the pets got registered. The pet tally by 11am was five dogs, two cats and a hamster.
Unfortunately the animal evacuees were less tolerant of each other than the human ones, and at one point a particularly distressed dog lunged at a passing pooch, knocking over a hamster cage and liberating its rodent tenant. Nobody in the room could have predicted when they woke up that morning that hours later, they’d be on their hands and knees in a Sally Army church hall trying to catch an escaped hamster.
It was about midday when the first of the press corps arrived at the centre. The couple who’d been first to arrive had already told me of their distress at being filmed in their night clothes back in May.
An Englishman’s home is his castle, even if that home consists of little more than dormitory of camp beds. And it became apparent very quickly that the evacuees had neither forgiven nor forgotten was they saw as media intrusion at a time of distress.
What followed was a delicate round of negotiations to establish parameters everybody was comfortable with. The corporate communicator generally inhabits a Kafka-esque world, castigated by the media for being too obstructive while accused by others of being too weighted in favour of the media’s interests. A situation like Thursday’s required give and take on all sides if resolutions were to be found and thankfully, that’s exactly what happened.
Given the choice, the majority of evacuees opted not to be filmed, photographed or interviewed and moved to the designated filming-free zone. The remainder provided a pool of willing interviewees for reporters. Back at the ranch, my colleagues had drawn up a set of guidelines for media covering the reception centre providing clarity about what they could expect from us and vice versa.
A reporter reacting to a breaking news agenda has little time for nuances but after 16 years in the world of corporate communications I can confidently state that in these situations it’s not the local hacks who generate the complaints. It’s their patch, after all, and they’ll still be here nurturing contacts long after the big guns have moved onto the next story.
And sure enough, Friday morning brought with it the usual suspects with the bread-and-butter media enquiries. And elsewhere, a hamster was safe behind bars, oblivious to weather forecasts and flood alerts.
Eva Duffy is a media relations specialist at Northamptonshire County Council.