Why PR is definitely not “child’s play”

Thu 28 Jun 2012

When council officials from Argyll & Bute decided to ban a nine year old schoolgirl from taking photos of her school lunches for her charity blog Never Seconds, they clearly did so without taking any advice from their PR team (or at least I dearly hope this is the case!).  What followed was a storm of traditional and new media reaction with extraordinary consequences.

Amid tens of thousands of howls of online protest from all over the world, the council put up an extraordinary, ill-advised rambling, and defiant statement (that certainly didn’t look as if anyone with an ounce of PR savvy had set eyes on it), defending its decision while attacking the nine year-old Martha Payne for her critical blog.

A few hours later, as #neverseconds trended and twitter UK went into meltdown labeling the Council "illiberal” and “morons”,   Argyll & Bute’s leader, Roddy McCuish performed one of the fastest u-turns in recent history reversing their ban live on Radio 4  insisting there was "no place for censorship".  Martha Payne could continue posting snapshots of her school dinners without fear of reprisal.  The other consequences are more momentous.  Having originally hoped to raise £7,000 for the Mary’s Meals charity which provides food at school for some of the world’s poorest children, Martha was concerned she might not reach her target.  Following the publicity the total raised is soon to reach a staggering £1000,000.

It is a heart-warming story with a happy ending, but it demonstrates so very clearly the importance of stopping for a moment to think about the potential public relations consequences in the taking of any business decision.  The council officials were concerned that press coverage of Martha’s blog was painting school meals staff in a bad light, and rightly they wanted to protect them.  The fact that to do so by forbidding a nine year old from taking photographs of her food was bound to cause “a bit of a fuss” clearly never crossed their minds.  This is where the modern mix of traditional and new media can create a momentum which becomes irresistible.  Such is the power of this combination that even the law is not immune.  Remember the fuss over “super-injunctions” and how one after another, those celebrity news blackouts crumbled as the stories behind them were gaily repeated, embellished and (often) totally distorted on Twitter?  In the Martha Payne case, the story appeared in the papers in the morning, Twitter outrage leapt into action through the day, fuelling the broadcast media’s interest.  Prior to the ban, her blog had received two million hits and was already supported by Jamie Oliver and other celebrity names.  Seventy-two hours later, that number passed six million and is still rising.  Moreover, the story is appearing in news outlets all over the world.

So what should the council officials have done instead?  After the Cuban Missile Crisis, UNICEF asked a pair of composers for a song easily translated into every language to symbolise peace.  “It’s a Small World, After all,” may be better known as a Disney ditty, but those words should have been at the forefront of their minds.  No news is “just local” any more.  We are all very quickly translated near neighbours in the digital world, and punishing an enterprising little girl and a charity which feeds and educates children in poverty as a response to hostile press coverage was always a flawed approach to say the least.  They acted because the Scottish Daily Record newspaper had published Martha’s story under the headline “Time to fire the dinner ladies,” saying (although no dinner ladies have confirmed this) that staff would fear for their jobs if this continued.  How much better would it have been if they had challenged journalists from the paper to come to try to cook healthy and tasty meals at Martha’s school?  Not only would they have discovered how challenging  a job it was, but Martha, the charity, the school and the council would all have benefitted from more good publicity.

As it is, the council is the only loser in this case, and they have at least been seen to have rectified their original, very naïve, mistake.  The council’s leader, during one of several televised apologies, admitted his authority had a “Dark Ages” understanding of new media.  That no doubt, will change.  Presumably, so will the council’s existing attitude to public relations in general.  Meanwhile, 8,000 African children will soon be eating food they would never have received, were it not for a nine year old girl and the power of the internet.  As PR failures go, that is a very satisfying one.

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