POST CRISIS: Being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description

11138377833_1aeb483ec6_b

So now ‘Rotherham’ is doomed to enter the lexican of towns long shadowed by failure.

It is a town where 1,400 girls were abused between 1997 and 2013 and where a report pointed the finger of blame for failing to do enough to stop the attacks at Rotherham Borough Council and South Yorkshire Police.

Times journalist Andrew Norfolk who helped expose the story welcomed the council’s recent openness but warned the council’s successors not to be ‘tempted to chase leaks rather than act on their failings.’

This warning isn’t small town politics. It should be taken seriously.

It should echo through the corridors of town halls, police stations and hospitals across the land and the first people to stop and listen should be public sector communicators.

There will always be more bad news to emerge from somewhere in the public sector. It could be a council, a police force or a hospital. That’s life.

Let’s not forget every day lives are saved and changed by the public sector but when things go wrong the public sector is often damned more loudly than the perpetrators of the crime.

So what should public sector PR people do? Two things. First, the strategy.

In the past the default comms strategy was about painting the best picture possible. At worst this was ‘spin’ and at best it was telling the positive stories residents would often not be told of. There were stories of success to tell and investment. There still are in some cases. But after eight years of working in a local government comms team I’m convinced there needs to be a realism and honesty in public sector communications. There needs to be the ‘sorry, we won’t be able to do that anymore and here are the reasons.’

There also needs to be the ‘actually, there’s a problem here and we want to take a look at it. Will you bear with us and help us fix it?’

The feeling is that Rotherham Borough Council by ordering the report and by the resignation of the Leader is now starting to acknowledge the problem.

The strategy for public sector communications should be to listen, to be human and to accept when things go wrong. Do this and you won’t be chasing leaks and you’ll be acting upon failings.

One story from my own life illustrates the culture shift of what is needed. I’m from Stafford. Stafford is where the Mid-Staffs Hospital scandal was centred where hundreds of people suffered because of poor care. When the news broke my Facebook timeline was filled by personal stories shared by people I grew up with that floored me. The mother who had died in pain. The grandfather who was wrongly sent home and never recovered.

A few weeks later I heard two NHS comms people from another area talk dismissively about ‘whinging patients.’ ‘It would have been better,’ I challenged them ‘if some of the whinging patients at Stafford had been listened to. Some of them may still be alive.’

Of course, they accepted that. But back in their office surrounded by the culture of fear and blame I have to ask myself, would they? I’m convinced that it is the role of comms – especially in the public sector- to challenge and be the grit in the oyster. Being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description in theory. It in practice, though, I know of at least a couple of people whose careers were blighted by objecting too strongly.

One was asked to leave when concerns were raised about an appointment. Another fell foul of their chief executive and had to leave. This all points to the age old concern of public sector communicators to be near the ‘top table.’ In other words close to those making the decisions. A comms professional close to the top table may get sight of the problem earlier and can advise. They also find their words carry more weight.

Of course, it’s fine to challenge if the PR officer is in a position to know what is going on at all times. There are 700 services provided by local government alone. There is no way a comms team can be across all of these areas. Often, when I worked in local government comms office door would fly open after 5pm with an 11th hour request for some help on an issue that was about to hit the papers. My worry is that at this point it is too late.

To learn the lesson of Rotherham public sector communicators should be mindful that glossing away the problem won’t solve the problem. Honesty and openness may be a start.

Creative commns credit 

Rotherham magistrates court sign.


 


4 Comments on “POST CRISIS: Being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description”

  1. johnpopham says:

    Good points, Dan.

    I’ve worked in and around Rotherham a lot over the years, and, in a way, some of what has happened there hasn’t surprised me because I recognise the culture that allows these things to continue. But, on the other hand, a quarter of a million people live in Rotherham, and, even taking into account the criminals, the victims, those complicit, and those who simply didn’t ask enough questions. the majority of people in the Borough are not culpable. And all of them should not be tarnish by the actions of a few, even though that few were far too many.

  2. Well put, Culture is difficult but not impossible to change, we can live in hope. I blogged my thoughts on this issue too:
    http://thestrongestsmile.wordpress.com/2014/08/30/rotherham-report-my-thoughts/
    Feel free to have a read and let me know what you think.
    c.

  3. Great post. I’ve been working at the Wales Audit Office for a year now, and it’s been very interesting to see how organisations deal with our reports, for instance some of what you said can be seen in this piece on Cardiff Council – http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/damning-cardiff-council-inspection-report-7710009.

    We were also lucky enough to have Peter Watkin Jones, who worked on the Mid Staffs Inquiry at our Scrutiny Conference. It was stark stuff – the findings appy to all of us in public services. You’re bang on when you say we all need to be the grit in the oyster.

    – Dyfrig


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s