Polly Rance: Neither mayoral contender won PR battle of riots

Several weeks have passed since the riots that tore through London and other cities.

Polly Rance: Hackney riots were 'incredibly unnerving'
Polly Rance: Hackney riots were 'incredibly unnerving'

In the areas directly affected, we are still taking stock of how this could happen in the places where we live and work. The disorder may have been happening across the UK, may even have had some element of central organisation, but each riot, each outbreak of disorder felt intensely local.

As I watched masked men strolling down my road carrying looted 40 inch flatscreens, and saw the landlady of my local standing on the pavement amid the wreckage of her pub windows, it felt incredibly unnerving, as if chaos had visited the very heart of our community.   

It was that which made the local response so important, why councils and other local public services were at the forefront. Council workers were cleaning burning debris from the streets, helping to repair local businesses, working with the police to identify perpetrators, working with residents to minimise the impact on their lives. Council Leaders, Mayors and Chief Executives were visiting those affected, offering reassurance and support, both in person and through the media.

The country at large may have been waiting for the PM to come home and take control, but in the places where it happened, it was this local leadership that people were looking for. That's why Boris Johnson's response was widely perceived as being so inadequate.

On that bright Tuesday morning, as the extent of the damage sunk in, London felt collectively traumatised in a way that it hasn't since 7/7. Johnson's broom-wielding jocularity did not go down well with the people of riot-torn Clapham, and many media commentators compared his performance unfavourably with that of Ken Livingstone, who in the wake of the London bombings was generally held to have got it just right. 

Incidentally, by focusing on the cuts as a cause of the riots, Ken's populist instincts seem to have failed him this time. In PR terms, neither of next year's main Mayoral contenders was a winner. 

The point is, when London is hit by trouble, Londoners look to their local leaders rather than to national government, for reassurance, and I am sure this is not peculiar to the capital.

Incidents like this really do put local public services to the test, and also show how much people rely on them. In my borough, Hackney, our council cleaning teams stayed out all night clearing the streets, so that when people nervously left their homes the next morning, there was no sign of the night's trouble save a few burned out cars, which were gone by lunchtime. The overwhelming feedback we had from residents showed how much this contributed to their sense of reassurance. 

For all that Twitter is touted to be the ultimate reputation tracker, Council PRs know that with the exception of journalists and bloggers, most residents only mention their local authority in a tweet to express displeasure at a parking ticket or planning decision.

Not so in the wake of the riots. To quote just a few Hackney tweets: 'Proud of the hard working men of Hackney Council. Tidied up good and proper'; 'Proud of my local council @hackneyliving - street cleaners out in force,  all offices and services open.  This is public service'; 'Council in Hackney has done a brilliant clean-up job. Cleaners we salute you'.

In the hours after the riots, that local public service response was vital to restore order and start to rebuild normality. Now, as communicators we have a very important role to play in helping to repair the damage done to reputations of the places we serve, in fostering the civic pride that drove hundreds of volunteers onto the streets to help clean up, and in promoting that all important local leadership. 


Polly Rance MCIPR is chair of the CIPR's local public services group and head of media and external relations at the London Borough of Hackney.


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in