Polly Rance: The perils of reputation management in a post-riot media environment

Later this autumn, Channel 4 is screening a new drama called Top Boy, a fictionalised account of urban gang culture, set in Hackney.

Polly Rance: 'Expect not only the unexpected, but the downright surreal'
Polly Rance: 'Expect not only the unexpected, but the downright surreal'

When the production team approached us atHackney Council to ask if they could film parts of the drama on our council estates, we said no.  

Not, as the producers went on to claim in media interviews last week because we were concerned about ‘tourism’, but because our estates are people’s homes and we did not want residents to feel that we had allowed their neighbourhoods to be stigmatised on national television as riddled with gangs and drugs.  

The coverage of this decision coincided with a visit from Britney Spears who was filming her new video in the borough.  

Due to a last minute script change, Britney ended up being papped running out of one of our civic buildings wielding a replica firearm, something we absolutely had not authorised. Although it was a closed set, the resulting snaps ended up all over the tabloids the next day.  

A regional TV station decided to run a piece, with vox pops, on whether it was appropriate that Britney should be ‘running around a riot-torn area’ with a gun.  

When we told the press we had not authorised the shooter, we ended up with a media-generated ‘row’ between Hackney Council and Britney Spears dominating the back end of last week.  

If ten years in local government PR has taught me anything, it is to expect not only the unexpected, but the downright surreal.

What Top Boy and the Britney saga both illustrate is the dilemmas facing local public service communicators when it comes to managing place reputation, especially in the wake of this summer’s disturbances.

Hackney Council has taken some criticism for its decision to stop Top Boy filming on our estates, but managing reputation is not about denying or trying to hide problems.  

Good councils will communicate proactively, confidently and robustly about these issues and the action they are taking to manage problems such as gang or drug crime.  But they will also try to protect the areas they serve from the effects of negative stereotyping.
It is easy to dismiss reputation management as spin, but reputation has an enormous impact on inward investment and on the economic prosperity of an area.  

For a place to thrive, businesses need to feel confident to relocate there, confident that their staff will feel safe, that they are investing in a place with a good future.   

A local economy will not grow if people are too frightened to visit and to come and spend their money. Local councils, schools and other public services will only achieve excellence if they can attract the best staff.    

Councils have a duty to support local businesses, attract inward investment, and work towards creating local jobs and opportunities. As communicators we have a vital role to play in those efforts, shaping positive and credible narratives for local areas that promote economic development and at the same time resonate with the people who live and work there.

Polly Rance MCIPR is the Chair of the CIPR’s Local Public Services Group and Head of Media and External Relations at the London Borough of Hackney.

The CIPR Local Public Service Conference is on 13/14 October at CIPR HQ in Russell Square and includes a panel discussion on reputation and place: After the Riots: Rebuilding Place and Community.  To book a place visit www.cipr.co.uk/lps2011

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