NEWS ANALYSIS: In times of crisis can you count on local expertise? Local government PROs are developing a scheme to share crisis expertise between councils. Maja Pawinska reports on the scheme which aims not to make a drama out of a crisis

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

asking questions.



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

summer.



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

register.



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

experienced people.



'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

communications support.



'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

than panicking.'



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.



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