OPINION: Fight immigration fears with facts

Recent research on the reporting of immigration and asylum issues poses an interesting challenge for all communicators ('Govt must improve media relations on asylum,' PRWeek, 9 March).

A report by the Information Centre About Asylum and Refugees suggests the Government needs to improve its dialogue with media in order to tackle ‘hostile’ reporting.

On the one hand, there is a need to be honest so the public know the issues. But on the other hand, this can lead to negative and damaging media reporting that has the potential to threaten community relationships and, in extreme cases, can be exploited to stir up hatred.

Managing comms around difficult issues such as asylum is never easy, but it can be done effectively. Recently, my organisation, the London Borough of Hillingdon, announced it was raising council tax bills by one per cent because of the number of young asylum seekers supported in the area (Hillingdon is home to Heathrow Airport). However, media coverage has been balanced, factual and responsible.

As with any campaign, those around asylum involve careful planning, a clear strategy, an analysis of the risks and the delivery of simple, honest messages. The risks are obvious – media stories that focus on cost and numbers.

Working closely with media on controversial issues always pays dividends. If we can offer them human-interest stories, we have a better chance of influencing the outcome. When journalists are given access to young asylum seekers, many of whom have fled to the UK in fear of their lives, they become real people with real stories to tell. Through balanced media reporting of such stories, the public are in a much better position to make informed decisions.

Of course, there are always risks, but then we choose to work in communications and it comes with the territory.

The best councils are not afraid to deal with controversial subjects, and they do so effectively by explaining the issues to their residents and by giving them the facts so they can make up their own minds.

Transparent commutions helps to restore the public’s faith in what their council tells them.

David Holdstock is head of communications at the London Borough of Hillingdon

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