CAMPAIGNS: Lincoln PROs react to KPMG investigation - Crisis Management

Client: Lincolnshire County Council
PR Team: In-house press office
Campaign: Crisis management
Timescale: 3 May - 13 September (probable end-date)
Budget: Part of budget

It is likely to be a brutal Friday 13 in September for Lincolnshire County Council. The council's Conservative leader Jim Speechley is being forced to step down by that date.

According to press reports, Speechley has been told by his own party to leave 'with dignity' before that date, after becoming the centre of a saga that has threatened to cause immense damage to the council's reputation. Speechley claims he has not been told to leave by the council.

Attempts to force Speechley's resignation began when the opposition Labour group complained about a £150,000 grant to a food company that had been made three years ago without committee approval. Auditor KPMG was called in to investigate.

A report on the KPMG investigation was published in May and found the committee process had been circumvented and payments had been made, laying most of the blame for the 'unlawful' process at the door of Speechley.

The report also accuses him of subjecting senior officers 'to a climate of fear with regard to their jobs ... (and being) overly powerful within the council'.

Once the report was made public, a campaign against Speechley was launched by the Lincolnshire Echo.

This led to increasing pressure on the leader until eventually his own party turned on him at a meeting of the full council on 25 July.

As the story received its first press coverage, council PR manager Steve Jackson and his two press officers attempted to limit the damage.

Objectives

To ensure the findings of the KPMG report were well publicised and that the media understood the council did not dispute any part of the report and was taking steps to ensure the same never happened again. There was never any question of KPMG's report being kept as an internal matter since it held 'public interest' status.

At the same time, Jackson was anxious to prevent the ensuing negative publicity from obscuring the council's day-to-day 'good work' and that relations with the media did not deteriorate or create a bandwagon of negative coverage.

To avoid the council becoming embroiled in personality politics and to focus on protecting the council's reputation.

Strategy and Plan

As soon as the report was released a press conference - a rarity in local government - was organised featuring, for the first time at Lincolnshire County Council, special facilities for broadcasters.

Hard copies and online copies of the report were made available and advertising was taken out in the local press to make the public aware of how to obtain a copy.

Local and regional press and broadcasters attended the event, at which they could question representatives from all parties.

Speechley, who has claimed in media reports that the findings in the report are untrue, did not attend to give his side of the story.

Such was the Lincolnshire Echo's interest in the saga that the newspaper ran a dozen special features of eight pages about developments in the wake of the KPMG report.

Jackson sought a meeting with editor Mike Sassi to see if the paper would carry an increased amount of positive stories as a counterweight.

However, while Jackson believes the newspaper adopted a 'tabloid' approach to the council's troubles, he has not taken issue with the substance of the coverage and says his priority was to provide a steady stream of press releases and story ideas and maintain cordial relations with the newspaper.

Jackson says his job was made considerably easier by the fact Speechley did not 'lean on him' to use the press office to defend the leader.

Measurement and Evaluation

The crisis has created much negative publicity for the council. Although media interest put pressure on the lightly-staffed press office's resources, the department is confident it will still meet its annual target of 800 press releases, informing the media about positive events at the council.

As the council had never disagreed with the report, negative coverage has been unavoidable. But the council's aim has been to ensure balance in the negative coverage, and ensure relations with the media did not enter a downward spiral. So far, these aims have been successful.

Results

Since Jackson's meeting with Sassi at the beginning of the crisis, the Lincolnshire Echo has continued to devote many column inches to the Speechley story, including its daily 'Speechley Watch'. But it has also run double-page features looking at other sides of council work, such as social services, highways and education.

Speechley said of the Lincolnshire Echo's coverage: 'I don't know yet (if I will be taking legal action). They have made a number of statements that are not correct. They used the word "bully", which isn't in any report.

I'm not taking (legal) action currently, but it depends on the council's action on the 13th.'

Sassi said he considers his paper's approach has been fair given that Speechley clung to power despite extensive criticism in the KPMG investigation.

He believes Speechley will stand down on 13 September and that Jackson's approach has been the right one.

'I think he has an unenviable job, but have no complaints with the way he has done it,' said Sassi. 'We recognise that when Speechley has gone the council will have a tremendous task in rebuilding its reputation and I will be happy to help them. I certainly don't believe the council is rotten to the core.'

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