It was a June afternoon, and the end of another busy day on the coast during 2020’s sunny summer of lockdown when Newhaven Lifeboat was tasked to a 14-year-old boy, who had drifted some 500 metres from the beach.
Propelled by the tide and an offshore breeze, he was making fast progress towards Seaford Head, clinging to a basketball to keep himself afloat.
As luck would have it for this young lad, two paddleboarders reached him before he was overwhelmed by exhaustion. Moments later, the lifeboat arrived on scene. He was rescued.
Incidents with positive outcomes make appealing good news stories. This one had strong visuals to boot. Nonetheless, the speed with which calls started to come in from local media was astonishing.
Managing media interest
My competency training had already addressed the myth that any PR is good PR. To continue the theme of pithy proverbs, whether it is your preference to skin a cat, peel an orange or crack an egg, turning an incident into the coverage you want is as rich in pitfalls as it is in opportunity.
I was yet to be fully debriefed on the circumstances, and the willingness of the casualty to engage with press, so I bought time with the journalists and considered possible angles from which to report the story.
Guiding the story
The RNLI messaging opportunities were several, but certain of them rang alarm bells with potential for speculative repercussions – around the sort of negative social platform chatter that gathers around the most innocuous of stories.
Safeguarding the casualty’s interests is intrinsically linked to nurturing the RNLI brand. My responsibility to this young swimmer, enjoying an afternoon on the beach, was not to draw opinion on his actions that day, nor the actions of those he was with.
In many cases, the voice of the rescued can hold a great deal of power and impact. As it turned out, however, the casualty was possibly not aware of the extent to which he had been in danger.
The more service calls I write up, the more I notice that directing public curiosity is a delicate business, and best not left to chance. While all may appear well on the surface, the media message still needs to be carefully managed.
Incorporating the message
On this occasion I let the headline do the work, keeping the press release short, with dry facts leading to the RNLI safety message: if you see someone in trouble in the water, dial 999 and ask for the Coastguard.
By incorporating this safety message as a quote from the duty Coxswain, it served to underline the RNLI’s charitable conviction to save lives at sea, no matter who, what or why. The rescue and all it entailed, therefore, was indisputably endorsed in the words of Newhaven Lifeboat.
The story was covered positively in print, on radio – with a scheduled breakfast interview of Newhaven’s Deputy Launch Authority – and with news segments on regional television.
Roz Ashton is a trainee Lifeboat press officer at Newhaven RNLI
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