Peter Holt: What to do after the nuclear button is pressed

As public sector communicators, happily, we don't often get called upon to handle a modern-day local equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Peter Holt: 'be ready for the media fall out' of redundancies
Peter Holt: 'be ready for the media fall out' of redundancies
But what’s the right way of handling the PR when your organisation chooses the local equivalent of pressing the nuclear launch button – such as deciding to cut staff salaries across the board?

Maybe not that common a question for those of us in the public sector – but certainly becoming more so, as public bodies face up to funding cuts the scale of which we’ve never seen before. Its impact can be high too, as we’re often the largest local employer.

The days are perhaps behind us when it’s just the staff of a plucky engineering firm we see on the regional news taking a pay cut just to tide them through until orders pick up. Just look at the recent experience of colleagues at Shropshire County Council or Southampton City Council.

What are the issues for us then?

Well, first off, where is public opinion on this issue? Would us public sector types generate sympathy, or have we got it coming? How best then to pitch the tone of the big announcement?

In answering this question, it’s worth first pondering another: how common a currency is it that we live on bloated fat-cat salaries, maybe clocking in for a few hours, in between attending a compulsory two day seminar on protecting the rights of lesbian gypsy benefit claimants and our monthly health and safety refresher course (‘top tip: never be afraid to say ‘no’ to people wanting to have unregulated fun’)?  

After we’ve taken our two hour lunch break in our subsidised canteen, totted up our flexi-time, and checked up on the latest value of our gold-plated pension schemes, even the Daily Mail would perhaps begrudgingly accept that we spend enough time at our ergonomically-engineered desks (a snip at £2,399 plus VAT each) to dish out a few pointless edicts which meddle in the lives of hard-working small businesspeople.

Except for librarians – we like libraries. Err, and rat catchers. And gawd-love-‘em home care assistants. And that nice park-keeper who shouts at the lawless 12 year olds loitering by the swings. And teachers – at least the nice ones who wear blouses and skirts and set homework rather than the lefty waster striking types.

Jokey stereotypes? Yeah, of course (even if they are ones that too many local and national newspaper editors – not to mention politicians – are apparently too willing to buy into).

Balancing that of course are the perceptions of sensible, right-thinking people all over the place who prefer facts to snide innuendo. Not to mention the millions of public sector workers and their families, friends and neighbours – alongside many service users – who know how hard we work and how important the services are that we provide.

So – if cutting terms and conditions is where your organisation chooses to end up, what are the logistics of it all? If your workforce won’t go for the new pay and benefits package voluntarily, the nuclear option is to issue them all redundancy notices and invite them to either sign a new contract or else be out of a job.

If your organisation chooses to enter the launch codes and turn the dual keys for this particular option, then be ready for the media fall out.

This is where us public sector press office types benefit from having a seat at the top table – where we can help feed in the implications of how conducting sensitive industrial relations through the media will play before such far-reaching decisions are taken, rather than handed to us after-the-fact on a (steaming) plate ready to announce by us wearing the bravest of our brave faces. This kind of scenario also proves the case for having internal communications managed alongside the press office, to avoid mixed messaging at a massively sensitive time.

Be ready to deploy your inter-continental ballistic narrative – setting out clearly the choices between saving the necessary money in this way as opposed to whatever the other most serious option was. Never a good idea to contrast your chosen way forward only against an even less palatable idea if that alternative is not plausible. That’s too cheap a price to pay for your credibility.

Also, important though it is to avoid patronising readers by going too far in dumbing down messages, it’s similarly important not to drown people in either complexity or an excess of facts and figures. A tricky judgment to get right, but certainly one to consider carefully.

So – you’ve got your timing right (or as right as you can do) and your internal comms too, so that your staff don’t hear about this first via the local paper (the modern day, local equivalent of an air raid siren). You’ve thought about how the message will go down and chosen your tone accordingly. You’ve set out the case clearly and contrasted it with the even less palatable alternatives. I’m hoping that you donned your hard hat first though, remembered to whitewash your windows, and have practised ‘duck and cover’.

Alternatively though, use your seat at the table and your influence to help talk them back from the brink.  Just don’t expect your own little Nobel Peace Prize for averting this particular local Cuban Missile Crisis.

Peter Holt is service director of communication and marketing at Bristol City Council and vice chair of the CIPR local public services group

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