There's often a tendancy to clam up when something bad happens in an organisation, especially when the subject matter is truly sad and disturbing. But one local authority took a braver approach.
by Amanda Rose
As a council press officer there are issues you’ll face which initially will fill you with dread.
When I learned that arrests were imminent for child sexual exploitation in Peterborough, it was one such moment. I knew that the ensuing challenge to manage the media’s appetite to scrutinise the role of the council and our partners could quiet possibly turn out to be the biggest challenge of my career to date.
Media coverage of trials in Oxford and Rochdale was fresh in my mind and in the minds of our chief executive, director of children’s services and council leader. All were sobered at the prospect of what lay ahead.
In January five men and boys were found guilty of sexually exploiting girls in Peterborough. The media coverage was accurate, informative and reflected the work of council officers. Our team even received praise from a number of prominent journalists for the way we had dealt with the media.
This wasn’t luck - it was the result of months of hard work and meticulous planning.
If you listened to the interviews with our social workers, you’ll have heard them explain the importance of relationships - with the victims. Relationships with journalists were just as important.
Prior to the trial beginning, we contacted the local and national media. I asked whether they would be covering the trial and talked through details of the case and the council's involvement. We wanted to be open and upfront.
We did the same a few weeks before the end of the trial and prior to sentencing. Building and maintaining those relationships was vital. This preparation work meant we knew exactly what media wanted and they were more positive towards us.
Also important was the quality of our spokespeople. We were fortunate to have two good people to deploy - our chief executive who covered London and our director of children's services who conducted interviews in Peterborough. We made sure we could do interviews where media wanted them.
Our strategy, which focused on being open, approachable and accommodating, paid off. We received coverage in virtually every national newspaper, on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. The fact it was our proactivity and the work of our social workers that led to the arrests and subsequent convictions informed the coverage.
Ahead of sentencing we once again spoke to reporters and established that they wanted an interview with a social worker.
Social workers often get a bad press as people don't understand what they do. You often only hear about them when they've failed to protect a vulnerable child.
In Peterborough our social workers were crucial to the whole investigation.
We gave them the support they needed to feel comfortable talking to journalists. As a result they did interviews with Sky News, BBC, ITV and crucially, the Today programme, which ran a very balanced piece involving an extended interview.
The feedback was fantastic, particularly on Twitter, with people praising their work and their courage to stand up and talk about social work.
The result - we are recognised nationally as a city that tackled, and continues to tackle, child sexual exploitation.
Leading on media relations for this trial, with support from colleagues at Westminster City Council, taught me three really important lessons that I will now take with me in my career:
- Firstly, speak to the media early. They will find out, so make sure it is from you first.
- Secondly, agree the story you want to tell and stick to it and remember interviews are a presentation.
- Finally, choose your best spokespeople and prepare them meticulously.
Amanda Rose is acting communications manager - media, at Peterborough City Council
pic via WikiMedia