A district council chief executive is woken at 6am and informed of
a crisis, potentially a child abuse case or tragic accident such as the
Selby train crash.
Within minutes, the local and national media, possibly even the
international press and newswires, have got wind of the story and are
There are only two PROs in the council press office, and although highly
skilled at dealing with the day-to-day communication of council
business, neither has dealt with such a crisis before.
Surely the situation would be improved if the CEO could summon an expert
in council crisis communications to help manage those first crucial few
days of the crisis?
The local government group of the IPR has come up with an initiative
which could enable council leaders to do just that. The group is
proposing a register of people working in-house in council press offices
who have crisis experience.
Local authorities will be able to sign up to the crisis support network
so that if they ever have to deal with a serious problem that requires
top-class crisis communications experience, they will be able to
'borrow' someone on the register for a few days, probably for free.
The network has support from the Society of Local Authority Chief
Executives and other local government groups, and is due to launch this
The idea came from Robin Treacher, who runs DTW, an agency specialising
in local government clients. Treacher was a local government PRO for 12
years, and managed communications for crises including the Cleveland
child abuse crisis. He has worked for around 60 councils since he
launched the agency in 1989, and sits on the IPR local government
group's executive committee.
'With a major incident, a PRO could get immediate help from experienced
colleagues who can hit the ground running and don't need to have the way
local government works explained,' says Treacher.
He is drawing up the details of the network with Mike McCabe,
Buckinghamshire County Council head of PR and vice-chair of the IPR
local government group.
McCabe reckons there are a maximum of 60 people in local government in
the UK who have the right type of communications expertise to be on the
Treacher is more conservative, putting the figure nearer 20 or 30, and
adds that being on the register can't be seen as a training opportunity.
However, IPR local government group chairman Carl Welham, who runs the
press office at Reading Council, says there may be some scope for less
'There's nothing like a crisis to hone your writing, media, planning and
diplomacy skills,' says Welham. 'Obviously we don't want raw recruits in
the network, but when councils draft people in, they will need people at
all levels, from simple media enquiries to high-level strategy.'
But if councils are using other in-house experts for crisis management,
where does this leave the private sector? Will it lead to less work in
the local authority arena for specialist agencies?
Treacher says the network won't put his company out of work, since it's
about having expertise on site from day one of a crisis, and local
authorities don't have the cash to have agencies on standby to manage
crises, nor the time to hold a pitch with a crisis raging.
'It won't change the relationship between council and agencies at all,'
he says. 'We do crisis work for councils, but it's long-term work, not
from day one. Agencies get involved when it comes to a court case, or a
community relations programme, or regaining the confidence of the media
in the aftermath of a crisis. In fact, if councils see the benefits of
the network they may think more favourably about using additional PR
resources from the private sector.'
McCabe backs this up, saying that bringing in short-term expertise from
other councils will give CEOs a few days' grace to source longer-term
'It will provide space for the organisation to make the right decision
about where to source that support, which may well come from the private
sector. The network will allow them to do some business planning rather
Agencies which work within the public sector are equally supportive of
the idea. 'It is widely acknowledged that there is an alarming dearth of
crisis networks and shared best practice in this country, and this could
really begin to fill a gap,' says Chris Woodcock director of crisis
management specialist Razor PR, and formerly a press office manager at
Cardiff City Council.
But not everyone is so positive. In the specific case of last week's
crash in Selby, Yorkshire County Council is convinced such a service
would not have been needed.
Robin Myshrall, head of the council's emergency risk management
department, insists the authority's communications function under
director of business and consumer affairs, Gordon Gresty, was
well-prepared for such a crisis. However, Myshrall does accept that
situations could arise where external advice from experienced council
PROs would be indispensable.
While numerous crises, including the Selby crash, have fared perfectly
adequately without any rooster of expertise there is still an important
role for such a scheme within the public sector.
In the unexpected event of a crisis a support network of experts should
prove a positive resource for those councils or local authorities
unfortunate enough to require that type of help.