CAMPAIGNS: Council faces media over a care impasse - Media Relations

Client: Gloucestershire County Council PR Team: In-house Campaign: Dealing with the death of a pensioner after she left a care home Timescale: Ongoing Budget: Existing resources

Handling the PR around a death is difficult at the best of times. But as emotions run high and the media seaches for someone or something to blame, an effective PR crisis management strategy needs to be put together and executed effectively but delicately.

When press officers at Gloucestershire County Council came into work on the morning of 11 February, it seemed like just another day. However, within hours the office was turned upside down when it received a call from the local paper about the death of a pensioner who had died just days after being forced out of a nursing home because the local authority would not pay a rise in fees.

For the next week, and until the present day, the office would receive a steady stream of media inquiries on the facts surrounding the case, updates and plans for an inquiry.

Pensioners, like children, are always an emotive issue and provide good news copy. This case was no different.

Violet Townsend, 88, had lived at Magdalen House for eight years, but had to leave on 6 February after the owners put up the standard fees by £79 a week - to £454. The council said that was too much and moved Violet to a cheaper home, against the advice of her GP.

Five days later she died, prompting criticism from her family.

Of the nine people in Magdalen at the same time, three died before they were moved, five - including Violet - were moved and one remained. However, Violet's family had complained to the local paper about the enforced move, making a follow-up story inevitable.

And there are few things more emotive than a pensioner's death to get the media indignant with rage.


Council media and public relations officer Sarah Wood was responsible for social service matters. Wood, 29, who has been in the job four years, shouldered most of the calls and dealt with responses.

'After 11 February we started to receive lots of calls from agencies, local papers and broadcast outlets - but very few from national papers, who must have relied on the agencies,' she says.

'We tried to be as open as possible, but it wasn't easy as we were dealing with personal details. Because her family had gone to the paper before, that did make it a bit easier.

'It was difficult because we had to be accurate, and to do that it sometimes takes time to check. But some callers wanted answers quickly, particularly radio.

We had to get a balance.'

Strategy and Plan

The main strategy was to answer questions within deadlines, according to the media outlet. Wood says that the team did not have time to sit down and write a strategy, it was more reactive.

'It's difficult to plan when you don't know what the questions are. We just had to deal with inquiries as they came in,' she says

As well as dealing with calls, press releases were issued in the first week expressing the council's condolences, explaining the background to the case and plans for an inquiry. A press office contact was included, as was the councillor responsible for social service care.

Wood said out-of-hours contact numbers were also available, although these were not obvious on press releases.

Towards the end of the week when the calls began to slow and the inquiry had been announced, the team could plan.

Details of the two-day inquiry - which is due to take place at the end of April - were set out. However, despite pledges of openness, the press team encountered problems with two meetings organised to plan the conduct of the inquiry.

'We had said everything would be open, but those two meetings had to be in private because we were discussing who would sit on the inquiries.

People's private details and CVs were being discussed, so we couldn't have the media in,' Wood says.

However, the reasons weren't explained beforehand and the decision sparked anger and suspicion from reporters.

'After the first planning meeting, we called reporters in and explained the situation. It was okay after that, but I learned a good lesson from it,' Wood adds.

This week the council confirmed that the public enquiry will take place 28 April and will probably last for two days. Six councillors are expected to take part along with an as yet unamed chair, with witnesses being called thoughout the period.

Measurement and Evaluation

Coverage included the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph.

However, there was no formal measurement and evaluation plan in place.

Wood says reporting was generally fair and balanced, with the council's message widely reported.

The PR team decided not to complain when they felt that coverage was unbalanced. 'I don't think it does much good. If things were wrong, fair enough. But I think it can be counter-productive if you start nit-picking over bits and pieces of stories,' Wood says.


Gloucestershire Citizen social affairs reporter Aisling McVeigh, who broke the original story, says the department recovered after a stuttering start.

'I think they underestimated the size of the story when we first contacted them. But once they appreciated it was quite serious, their response was good,' she says.

However, the two closed meetings still caused confusion and anger.

McVeigh adds: 'They said they wanted everything in the open. But then they had two planning meetings and they were in private, which was very annoying.

'I think they could have handled that better.'

Generally, the reporting was balanced, with most articles explaining the council's dilemma. While the headlines and intros were alarmist, the local authority's reasons for moving patients was explained.

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