Being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description - in theory

Former Walsall Council senior press officer Dan Slee reflects on how public sector communicators should react to bad news such as the catalogue of sexual abuse uncovered in Rotherham.

Rotherham: Lessons to be learned for PRs
Rotherham: Lessons to be learned for PRs

So now Rotherham is doomed to enter the list of towns shadowed by public sector failings. It is a town where 1,400 girls were abused between 1997 and 2013 according to reports this week, which pointed the finger of blame for failing to do enough to stop the attacks at Rotherham Borough Council and South Yorkshire Police.

Times journalist Andrew Norfolk, who helped expose the story, welcomed the council's recent openness but warned the council's successors not to be "tempted to chase leaks rather than act on their failings".

This warning isn't small-town politics. It should be taken seriously. It should echo through the corridors of town halls, police stations and hospitals across the land and the first people to stop and listen should be public sector communicators.

There will always be bad news emerging from somewhere in the public sector. It could be a council, a police force or a hospital. That's life. Let's not forget that every day lives are saved and changed by the public sector but when things go wrong it is often damned more loudly than the perpetrators of the crime.

So what should public sector PR people do about bad news? Two things. First, the strategy. In the past the default comms strategy was about painting the best picture possible. At worst this was 'spin' and at best it was telling the positive stories residents would not often hear about.

There were stories of success and investment to tell. There still are in some cases. But after eight years of working in a local government comms team I'm convinced there needs to be a realism and honesty in public sector communications. There needs to be the "sorry, we won't be able to do that any more and here are the reasons".

There also needs to be the "Actually, there's a problem here and we want to take a look at it. Will you bear with us and help us fix it?" The feeling is that, by ordering the report and by the resignation of the leader, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council is now starting to acknowledge the problem. The strategy for public sector communications should be to listen, to be human and to accept when things go wrong. Do this and you won't be chasing leaks – you'll be acting upon failings.

One story from my own life illustrates the culture shift of what is needed. I'm from Stafford, where the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal in which hundreds of people suffered because of poor care was centred. When the news broke my Facebook timeline was filled with personal stories shared by people I grew up with that floored me. A mother who had died in pain. A grandfather who was wrongly sent home and never recovered.

A few weeks later I heard two NHS comms people from another area talk dismissively about "whinging patients". "'It would have been better," I challenged them, "if some of the whinging patients at Stafford had been listened to. Some of them may still be alive."

Of course, they accepted that. But back in their office surrounded by the culture of fear and blame I have to ask myself, would they? I'm convinced that it is the role of comms – especially in the public sector – to challenge and be the grit in the oyster. In theory, being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description. In practice, though, I know of at least a couple of people whose careers were blighted by objecting too strongly.

One was asked to leave when concerns were raised about an appointment. Another fell foul of their chief executive and had to leave. This all points to the age-old concern of public sector communicators to be close to those making the decisions. A comms professional at the top table may get sight of the problem earlier and can advise. They also find their words carry more weight.

Of course, it's fine to challenge if the PR officer is in a position to know what is going on at all times. There are 700 services provided by local government alone. There is no way a comms team can be across all of these areas. Often, when I worked in local government comms the office door would fly open after 5pm with an 11th hour request for some help on an issue that was about to hit the papers. My worry is that at this point it is too late.

To learn lessons from Rotherham public sector communicators should be mindful that glossing over the problem won't solve it. Honesty and openness may be a start.

Dan Slee is a director at Comms2point0 and former senior press and publicity officer at Walsall Council 

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