It shouldn’t have been difficult to spot. Every hot button was pressed – racism, welfare, politics, the State and immigration – so surely they should have proceeded with care?
Last week in the UK, a powerful human interest story became entangled with a political event in a PR disaster which exemplified some fundamental truths on message management. Until then, it had been a relatively un-newsworthy parliamentary election in Rotherham, northern England, where the UK Labour Party had held the seat in every election since 1933. So far, so boring.
That was until last weekend, when UK national daily the Daily Telegraph ran with a front-page story that officials from Rotherham Borough Council had removed permission for a married couple to continue caring for their foster children – apparently because of the couple’s membership of the UK Independence Party, also known as UKIP. According to the unnamed couple, the reason given for removing the children – who are from an “EU migrant background” – is because UKIP “have racist policies”.
For those unfamiliar with British politics, the UK Independence Party is a party with one overriding policy objective: Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
In the interests of fairness, Rotherham Council can only legally release a very select few details of the case and there may be more to it than meets the eye. However, Joyce Thacker, head of children’s services in Rotherham did confirm on Saturday that UKIP’s stance on multiculturalism was a factor in the decision.
This was the critical mistake – rather than allowing the story to run its course, Thacker waded into a political quagmire. So strongly did she feel about the righteousness of the Council’s action that she took to the infamously tough Today Programme to make her case. She was completely unprepared for the interview, which started off with her unprompted admission that they had failed to place the children appropriately in the past and ended with her claiming she had no choice in the decision.
Neither section was good PR; but both together pointed to an awkward case of a message gone completely out of control.
To complicate matters further, Rotherham yesterday went to the polls in a by-election to replace disgraced Labour MP Denis MacShane and “Fostergate” has been seen as a huge electoral boost for UKIP. The officials who made the decision have managed to give UKIP supporters a reason to be angry, a platform to campaign on and, most importantly, a cause célèbre that the party can claim vindicates their message. In the end, Rotherham Council gave UKIP the tools to gain second place in the by-election.
Bear in mind that this is a party formed with the single objective of British withdrawal from the EU, the rationale being an opposition to the principle of European officials making major decisions affecting the lives of British people. That local officials have made a major decision affecting the lives of a couple who support that party only gives UKIP’s central ideological argument – bureaucracy is bad – a sense of validity. And that’s regardless of the fact that bureaucratic lawmaking can often provide safeguards against all kinds of unpleasantness, from battery chicken farming to stopping salmonella getting spread on our toast.
Things that could have been done better:
- Recognise the Canute factor – When the story is running against you, don’t engage. Just like King Canute, you will not be able to stem the tide.
- Be prepared and avoid the car crash – Joyce Thacker didn’t know what had hit her. Better media training could have done huge amounts to prevent her disaster on the Today Programme.
- Ensure that the reasons for the decision are communicated as completely and effectively to the affected party as possible. The couple were allegedly given a one-sentence reason for the breaking up of their family and were understandably angry – angry enough to contact a major national newspaper.
- Understand your audience – UKIP supporters tend not to take blanket accusations of racism particularly well, especially when those supporters foster children with an ethnic background different to their own. Continuing to push the same accusation in media interviews will just frustrate.
- Be sensitive to timing – had the decision been taken sooner, Rotherham would have avoided the double whammy of a UKIP PR victory in the middle of a by-election and the imagery of Christmas presents left unopened by the former foster children.
Posted by: Alistair Walker @ IBA