CAMPAIGNS: Local Government PR - Joint strategy helps to limit inquiry fallout

Client: Lincolnshire County Council Social Services PR Team: In-house Campaign: Publication of the Matthew Steel inquiry report Timescale: 2-30 January 2003 Budget: Within existing resources plus £2,000 for media training

In December 2000, a year after leaving the care of the health and social services authorities in Lincolnshire, Matthew Steel was convicted of murder for stabbing a man to death. Lincolnshire County Council and the two local health authorities took part in an independent inquiry into his care and treatment.

Medical professionals had found it difficult to diagnose Steel's condition, finally accepting that he suffered from conduct disorder, a youth version of personality disorder. The inquiry report was due for publication on 30 January and the three authorities worked together to get their messages across to the media.

Objectives

To express regret for the loss of a human life. To reiterate that the authorities under examination were not directly responsible for the murder, but accepted that there had been flaws in the service. To show that new policies had been put in place to improve the care and treatment of individuals like Steel.

Strategy and Plan

The authorities wanted to avoid inaccurate parallels with the high-profile Victoria Climbie report, due to be published two days before their press briefing. They also wanted to keep the coverage within the local press.

A formal action plan was drawn up by Lincolnshire social services detailing existing and future service improvements, based on the report's recommendations.

A draft Q&A document was prepared to highlight likely media questions.

The heads of the three organisations involved and other relevant employees were given media training by Television Radio Techniques.

All staff from the organisations referenced in the report were briefed about the publication of the inquiry report and given instructions for referring media enquiries.

A press briefing with a panel of senior members of the three authorities was arranged. The media were given the report, action plan and a joint press statement accepting the conclusions of the report and focusing on the improvements which had been made in advance of the briefing, and were invited to interview members of the organisations after the briefing.

Measurement and Evaluation

The story ran twice on Yorkshire TV news, on BBC Radio Lincolnshire and Lincs FM, as well as in the main regional newspaper, the Lincolnshire Echo. Coverage was generally balanced, taking into consideration the complexities of the case, and all key messages came across.

Results

The in-house team at Lincolnshire council managed to keep coverage of the report local and unrelated to the breaking Victoria Climbie story.

After the success of the media training, the council has developed a formal programme for senior management in the organisation.

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