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September 2021
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Public Sector Media Relations Post Leveson

The investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World and the general culture and ethics of the British media, ‘The Leveson Inquiry’, should conclude with a report in the Autumn. Public hearings are expected to run on into the Summer with the next high profile phase focused on the relationship between the press and politicians, as we have seen with the prime minister and other senior political figures giving evidence recently.

Like the previous phase of the inquiry, which examined the relationship between the police and the press, there could be some prominent casualties. Freedom of the press is unlikely to be one of them, however. There is probably a case for tighter, independent press regulation, but it is hard to see how a liberal democracy can operate without a free press.

We criticise it for trespassing upon personal privacy, grimace at the red tops tendency to the melodramatic, but at the same laud it when it exposes the vagabonds, thieves and chancers from all walks of life. It is also the ‘Fourth Estate’; the referee between vested political interest and the common public good.

Indeed the relationship between the press and politicians in particular, and the public sector in general, has been symbiotic. They need each other, and perhaps it was ever thus. What Leveson is revealing, however, is that the closeness of the relationship has led to practices that are damaging to both parties, leaving their reputation on the wane.

Reputation is difficult to measure in the public sector, but many research initiatives have shown the relationship that exists between reputation and shareholder value in the private sector. For example, a report published in March of this year by Echo Research stated that; corporate reputation accounts for 33% of the value of the UKs top 100 companies; a 5% improvement in the strength of one of these company’s reputation would produce an average of 2% increase in market capitalisation.

We also know from our own everyday experiences that reputation matters.

We all feel more likely to buy the products of companies that we trust , work for organisations we respect, and recommend companies we admire. Trust, respect, admiration are all terms associated with a reputable organisation. They are not terms normally associated with the press.

The challenge for public sector organisations then is to build trust, to recreate a healthy symbiotic relationship with the press. To do so requires that there is transparency, consistency and accuracy in all communications.

Anne Campbell, who was Director of Communications at Suffolk and Norfolk Constabularies when giving evidence at the Leveson enquiry stated that a healthy relationship with the media was essential and acknowledged -that it is important to foster relationships with journalists and editors that are based on trust, openness and honesty… (and) to proactively use the news media to inform the public what we are dealing with, to enlist the help of the public in catching criminals and also as a means to deliver advice and guidance on a range of public safety issues.

Simon Ash, Chief Constable at Suffolk Constabulary, in his evidence to the enquiry referred to the constabulary’s use of media relations management systems that – keeps records of contacts with journalists and other individuals of note, for example local politicians and MPs, to enable the professional management of corporate communications… (and) enable us to bring more rigour to this area of our business.

Generally, the utilisation of software within the Corporate Communications function will ensure that key spokespeople have access to the appropriate lines to take and briefing statements on any issue affecting their organisation, and that they are ready to react consistently to enquiries from any stakeholder group, ensuring they remain the trusted source of information.

Careful management of stakeholder interactions will ensure that the message finds the right people, helping to leverage opportunities, mitigate risks, and protect reputational value. Recording of these interactions ensures the creation of a searchable, corporate memory of – “who met who”, “who said what to who”, and who sent what to who.

Leveson may not know it, but one consequence of the Inquiry may be that public sector organisations commit themselves to software that ensures they can demonstrate transparency, consistency and accuracy in all their stakeholder engagements.

Charlie O’Rourke

MD, AIMediaComms – provider of media relations and stakeholder engagement software.

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