86 families of travellers are set to be evicted within the next fortnight from the Dale Farm camp in Basildon, Essex, after the High Court refused an application for a temporary injunction which would have delayed it.
Media coverage has included The Guardian running an editorial on Monday that used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ and stated the eviction would be a ‘tragedy’. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has today run a story claiming the travellers will use their children as ‘human shields’.
Basildon Council’s comms has been led by interim head of comms Cormac Smith, an employee of Westminster Council, which is currently overseeing the Essex district council’s PR operation.
Smith told PRWeek that there was a ‘huge amount of misinformation’ in the media, such as suggestions that the council will cut off the camp’s gas and electricity. He added that the media’s use of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ has been ‘extremely unhelpful’.
‘I’ve got to co-ordinate the council’s comms against a group that are media savvy and very emotive,’ said Smith. ‘They are fighting on emotional terms. They use women and children to tell their story - you don’t see many men in the coverage.’
Smith added: ‘Where the challenge is for us is to be seen to be upholding the law of the land, and to do it so we’re treating everyone equally.’
The council’s messaging is focusing on ‘legality, equality and being fair and decent’.
Smith added said that he expected TV coverage would be critical – in particular, the BBC and Sky News. ‘The more right wing press will be more supportive, whereas the left wing are going to be more sympathetic to the gypsies. That’s how it’s panning out. But the BBC – people expect a level of balance, and even Sky News.’
The press office has been handling reactive calls, issuing information proactively and setting up media briefings. It has also agreed a number of spokespeople to be available at all times – the leader, deputy leader and other senior members of the cabinet.
‘It’s not about winning the argument – what this is about is comms that helps the council to operate more effectively. This has the potential to seriously damage the reputation of the council and, if that happens, the people who will suffer first and foremost are the residents.
‘Once the reputation goes, then trust breaks down – I think the challenge is that fundamental.’