Following the high-profile deaths of soldiers at Deepcut and Catterick barracks, and the recommendation of Army barrack inspections by the Surrey Police Report in May 2004, Minister for the Armed Services, Adam Ingram, announced the appointment of the ALI to conduct independent inspections of MOD training establishments. The first inspections focused on the welfare and duty of care of recruits and trainees on initial training and began in October 2004. With 24 inspections planned, culminating in the publication of a report of the findings in March 2005, an internal and external PR campaign was needed to lead up launch of the report.
To give the ten inspection staff the confidence to deal with any unexpected media interest. To make the media aware of the report and its contents.
To ensure that media coverage accurately reflected the reports contents and portrayed the inspections positively.
Strategy and Plan
Media training for inspection staff was devised by the ALI's own in-house PR team. It devised a list of awkward questions and how best to go about answering them in case they were approached by the media. The team identified 'key messages' and developed a Q&A sheet that inspection staff could refer to.
With the permission of the Army, a separate part of its website was created to included up-to-date news on the inspection progress. A press notice was sent to all MOD correspondents announcing this so that they were aware of the new information available.
Well in advance of the publication of the report, the ALI's inhouse PR team met MOD correspondents to pre-gauge likely interest in the report. On the advice of Luther Pendragon the ALI 'press briefing' was held as a round-table on the day of publication rather than as a standard press conference. MOD correspondents were invited to a 'lock-in' one and a half hours in advance of the publication time of the report. This gave them time to read the 140-page report.
Half an hour before publication, they were invited to put questions to the author of the report, the Chief Inspector of Adult Learning, David Sherlock. Journalists were then given time to file their stories before moving on to a second, MOD press conference with Adam Ingram. Interviews with the Chief Inspector were arranged through Razor PR and conducted throughout the day.
Measurement and Evaluation
Broadcast interviews and reports were used on Channel 4 News, BBC TV news bulletins, BBC Breakfast, the Six O'Clock News, ITN, British Forces Broadcasting TV and Radio and many regional radio stations. PA News and all the national dailies and the majority of regional press carried the story.
In the end none of the inspectors were approached by the media. The MOD news updates section of the website received 1,500 visits during the following three weeks. All of the media's coverage accurately reflected the report's contents and the ALI key messages.
BBC defence correspondent Paul Adams said: 'The lock-in worked very well. As a live broadcaster, there is nothing worse than getting a first glimpse of a report at a press conference and have to go on the air, within minutes, from a standing start.' Michael Evans, defence correspondent for The Times, added: 'Inviting us in an hour before it started was great, and it was better to be informal than having a formal situation with us facing the speaker. It worked very well indeed.'
Bill Nichols is co-founder and vice-chairman of The Whiteoaks Consultancy, and has handled crises including the aftermath of the Sinclair C5 launch.
'In the end, none of the inspectors were approached ...' The relief of the 'nothing untoward' is palpable. This case illustrates excellently the unsung hero of good crisis management: prevention.
After earlier tragic revelations, the report was a pending disaster.
One inspector's easily-misquoted sentence, one new tabloid revelation, one reporter scanning the report with three minutes to 'on air' and all might have been lost.
The team's planning, pre-briefings and 'lock-in' are best-practice examples of how to ensure correct spin and limit the oxygen of haste and speculation. Acknowledge, accept, communicate concisely, then move on and you do it perfectly.
But the 'what ifs' are more intriguing. They relate to control, rapid response and simulation. Was there a single control point if a crisis had erupted? Did the structure permit rapid decision-making between the army, MoD and PR team? Did it allow rapid closedown of unwanted comments by marginal players? What if the families of those affected had been provoked into angry cross-comment?
The more 'what ifs' modelled in a response manual, the easier it is to act fast and take control. Hesitation is the greatest ally of an exploding crisis.
Creativity: 3 Delivery: 5 8 out of 10