Diary of a volunteer RNLI Press Officer: Intense media training at HQ is no mini-break

This is the final entry in our series following the journey of volunteer RNLI press officer Roz Ashton, in her own words, as she completes her training and sets out in the role. Ashton has lived around the world, worked in advertising and sailed across the Atlantic.

Roz Ashton has come of age as a Lifeboat press officer, following a gruelling training course
Roz Ashton has come of age as a Lifeboat press officer, following a gruelling training course

Storm Barra whipped her path through empty streets, shaking up the town’s Christmas trees and causing actual waves to form on the River Ouse earlier this month. Eight miles upstream from Newhaven Lifeboat, my evening was cheered by the good company of friends and a festive drink by the fire of Harvey’s Tavern.

We caught up on each other’s news. I had recently spent three days at RNLI headquarters in Poole. After gaining some experience in the role, volunteer Lifeboat Press Officers are invited on an intensive media training course that gets deeper into the challenges of the job, equipping us for best practice, particularly in the face of major incidents.

The RNLI College (pictured below) is set within the charity’s HQ complex – an impressive spread of facilities dedicated to the building, testing, maintenance and training of the RNLI’s first-class kit and crew.

I arrived early on the Monday morning, with time for a coffee and pastry from the on-site eatery, before checking into my accommodation – a very comfortable room, complete with Poole Harbour view. But this was no mini-break.

Ethics of storytelling

The four-strong media training team, half of whom I have met before, introduced themselves. The snapshot of their professional backgrounds (charity, politics, broadsheets, radio, television) is inspiring, to say the least.

The other eight volunteers-in-training arrived from RNLI stations far and wide: Sennen Cove (Land’s End), Stromness (Orkney), Ballycotton and Lough Ree (Ireland), Port Erin (Isle of Man), Exmouth (Devon) and my closest neighbours, Littlehampton (West Sussex).

Discussions kicked off with the subject of ethics: the responsibility associated with borrowing the stories of others and fairly representing them.

In rapid distillation, compassion leads always. Whether it’s a rescue of a lone walker cut off by the tide, or a rescue of many, whose shocking plight has led them to cross the Channel in vessels insufficient for the job; we are not here to judge.

‘Corpsing on camera’

The course is peppered with practical know-how, from social media tips to house style. The nub of our training, however, is media handling, and this ratchets up in levels of challenge during the course.

My compadres and I bonded, exploring the outer limits of our comfort zones. I, for one, reached full exposure on day two. A probing live television interview roleplay cornered me into a cul-de-sac of panic that I was unable to exit and led to me corpsing on camera, in front of the entire team.

The trust between us, nonetheless, strengthened fast. I was surprised that my moment of breakdown felt less mortifying than I had expected when the clip was replayed for discussion. We were busy learning together.

With a well-placed safety message or informative media release, I too can save lives at sea – and that, more than anything, will propel me to go on.

Roz Ashton RNLI press officer 

‘Smiling assassins’

Our trainers were a slick team, steering us through our paces with the precision of smiling assassins. We all fell for their lulling security, ever so softly, fun and interactive, firing up our cortex, nudging us into uncomfortable places to consider outcomes and experience more little humiliations in the safety of the classroom.

Cunningly they readied us for our toughtest challenge, which culminated on day three with paired-up media briefing and rehearsal sessions with a fellow LPO, in response to the latest bulletin of drip-fed information – this time revealing the unfolding and final tragic twists in the roleplay scenario (based on an actual event) we had been working through.

Compassion, facts, key messages

Maintaining compassion, keeping to the facts, reinforcing key messages and answering questions is far from a walk in the park when the subject matter is search and rescue – or, in our scenario, the drowning of a child.

An independent reporter-producer team provided our ultimate test with a live-to-camera interview set up outside RNLI HQ on the waterfront. We were all living the drama of the extended roleplay. The outcome really mattered.

We had all come through the woods. The playback session was full of pride and applause.

The level of training we received on this course blew me away. Yes, I feel better equipped to support my Newhaven Lifeboat crew. Yes, I have built the confidence to handle a more demanding level of media enquiry. Perhaps the surprise, overriding joy, is the value the course has provided me, as a volunteer, to recognise the difference I can make directly to the RNLI mission.

A common cause

With a well-placed safety message or informative media release, I too can save lives at sea – and that, more than anything, will propel me to go on.

When the worst of Storm Barra has blown through the next morning, my new LPO ‘Pearls & Wisdom’ Whatsapp group pings. It’s Cal in Port Erin sharing footage of a raging shoreline, ingressing tide and flying industrial wheelie bins. We share the status of our local scenes and unite in the moment of joined-upness the weather has provided.

And as another Christmas of pandemic uncertainty approaches, my heart is filled with the positive strength of friends and colleagues and living well by our common cause.

To make a donation to the RNLI’s Christmas Appeal visit: RNLI.org/Xmas

Roz Ashton is a Lifeboat press officer at Newhaven RNLI

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