A local resident discovered 117 refugees on the road in the village
of Cliffe just outside Rochester on 11 August, the day of the
They would not say where they had come from or how they had got to the
UK. They could have been Macedonian or Albanian, but claimed to be from
The group was taken to the local police station, and Medway Council
shifted into crisis mode, organising emergency accommodation in case it
was needed, and providing supplies at a local day centre. The council
has a legal obligation to provide any refugees with food and shelter, as
well as arranging foster care for any unaccompanied children.
Refugee stories have attracted local and national media interest over
the past year and, despite the eclipse, the council was inundated with
calls from the media within hours of the incident.
To co-ordinate the flow of information internally and externally,
ensuring the smooth running of the crisis operation. To update the media
with the most recent facts to ensure accurate reporting. To communicate
the council’s plans for the refugees.
Strategy and Plan
As soon as the council was aware of the incident, the emergency
communications plan was put into place. The strategy placed an emphasis
on the role of the four-strong council press team in working with the
departments involved in a crisis.
Media officer Fiona McElroy was dispatched early in the morning to
Rainham police station and the Balfour day centre, to deal with the
local and national media. She co-ordinated interviews, briefed council
staff on what to say and on what questions to expect, and ensured the
media had the most accurate and up-to-date information available.
The internal directors of social services and community and environment
were kept informed. The press office issued news releases at regular
intervals from 9.30am, when a full picture of the incident had built up,
until the next morning.
The press team was also responsible for setting up an emergency
phone-line for the immigration service and for co-ordinating its work
with Stuart Donaldson, media officer for Medway police, to ensure a
Measurement and Evaluation
The council evaluated the success of the operation with an internal
debriefing seven days later. All parties involved in the crisis took
part, going through the crisis response step by step and examining its
strengths and weaknesses.
The role of the press team in providing accurate, up-to-the-minute
information was key to its smooth running and success. Updates on the
progress of the processing of the refugees ensured the council took
action where necessary and kept duplication of resources down to a
The three main messages: that the refugee crisis was a short-term
problem; that the council had a legal responsibility and did not turn
its back on the refugees; and that the day centre remained open for
business as usual throughout the day, were achieved by the
The discovery of the refugees prompted the council to impliment its
crisis management strategy: the worst case scenario was that they would
have to find accomodation for all 117 people for the foreseeable
In the event, by around 6pm that evening the refugees had all come up
with contact names and addresses of friends or family in the UK and had
been sent on their way by midnight. Their future is now in the hands of
The press team played a key role in the council’s handling of the
incident, which portrayed Medway in a positive light as an efficient
council at a time when it is bidding for city status.
Client: Medway Council
PR Team: In-house
Campaign: Managing discovery of ’Kosovar’ refugees
Timescale: August 1999