Ian Parker, Head of Strategic Communications, NLGN
London-locked as I tend to be these days, I was out of town during early July and missed at first hand both high and low of the Olympic vote and the bombings. Despite rolling news and regular phone contact, it felt pretty strange being 200 miles away in Harrogate at the annual conference of the Local Government Association.
Not that the conference went untouched by events. The rapid way in which attendant key figures from London local government quickly assembled on 7/7 was testimony to real joined up action on their part. Yet, sharing a train back to London on the Friday with a senior local government journalist, I was also struck by the odd ways in which others in local government had dealt with the two events. Allowed a long look at emailed press releases, much time had evidently been spent on the part of council comms teams delivering messages of support/condolence.
Don’t get me wrong – I really wouldn’t want the human element removed from such responses, but the priorities taken seem rather wild. In the case of the bombings for example, given that it was still unclear as to whether these would be limited to the capital, all councils needed to make a statement of some sort. The focus however, should have been on revealing their own contingency plans to local media as a means for reassuring local people that a way of dealing with possible attacks had at the very least been formulated.
At the same time, local authorities beyond London who genuinely felt the Olympics would directly benefit their area, should by all means have shouted loud about this – again however, as a way of sating local media interest. (Given the impact the Olympics will have on kids across the UK, all councils should surely be considering how they might capitalise locally – a mini-Olympics in every authority, perhaps). Instead, at the moment of victory, some comms teams wasted energy on sending bland statements welcoming London’s success to national journalists focussed correctly on filling limited copy space with facts plus quotes from relevant representative bodies.
If all of this is merely about hitting press coverage targets during times of narrow news focus, comms teams might have been better off going for the ‘the panda-angle’. This is not as random an idea as it sounds. Various tales of new born cubs have graced the media this summer; as more seriously has the story from China of a city brought to a standstill by a rampaging panda, running over roof tops. The local authority had a contingency plan for dealing with such events: a tranquiliser dart. And, as an NLGN colleague pointed out this week, “it’s not all black and white” – something confirmed by a photograph in The Times on the birth of two red pandas at Dortmund zoo.
My tip therefore is to think laterally in times of national trauma and joy. If you really do want to make it onto the pages of a national media outlet, avoid spending too much time doing the right thing press-releasing messages of support for events elsewhere. You’re merely clogging up the inboxes of prime contacts who you might need when something local really does merit a splash. Instead, stay focussed on the demands of your local media – and if you really do need the national coverage, first seek high and wide for your ‘panda-angle’. It really is the bear necessity.