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A Barnes-tormer of a PR disaster

June, 2014

Asked by BBC Radio Kent to join them in the studio, Maxim’s Andrew Metcalf watched as the Kent & Medway Police & Crime Panel quizzed Ann Barnes on the reasoning behind her decision to take part in the now infamous C4 ‘Meet the Commissioner’ programme. He then went on to give his views live on air on her performance.

The last few weeks have been torrid for Ann Barnes in her £85,000 publicly funded position as Kent’s Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC), and there are a few pertinent lessons to be learnt from the events when it comes to effective reputation and media management.

Stop digging…

“When you’re in a hole stop digging” were the wise words of Denis Healey. However, despite finding herself in a PR nightmare and in front of the Panel, it seems she, and her advisers, are still carrying their spades and continuing to dig – by refusing media interviews.

Not all TV is good TV…

Despite saying that she’d researched the company’s previous documentaries, the simple fact is that it was part of a Cutting Edge series, which has a hard-hitting fly-on-the-wall style, should have set alarm bells ringing. 

Apparently the Commissioner got conflicting advice from colleagues as to whether to participate in the programme, but unfortunately she chose to ignore those suggesting she didn't become involved.

Naively she thought she was taking part in an ‘educational’ programme, one which would inform the public about the role of the PCC. What she got was a highly-edited documentary, that to many appeared to be a David Brentesque spoof, and self-inflicted, if somewhat harshly edited, public humiliation. It also led those who oppose the position of PCC to accuse her of damaging the reputation of Kent Police.

Be ready to respond…

It appears that the Commissioner’s own PR advisers were caught unprepared as C4’s PR machine promoted the broadcast using eye-watering video clips, via You Tube, and which led to a whirlwind of social media activity. 

Having been followed for four months, and viewed it before broadcast, it seems strange that Ann’s PR team weren’t able to react better. 

Move quickly as bad news doesn't go away…

Following the television programme’s broadcast, the Commissioner put out a statement, and subsequently argued that her decision to refuse face-to-face interviews was due to the protocol of speaking to the Panel first.

That might be the protocol, but clearing the lines with the Chairman of the Panel, and agreeing the position to be taken, before then doing interviews could have dampened the criticism, and limited the lifespan of the story.

After the Panel meeting finished, the Commissioner once again refused to do a live Radio Kent interview, despite being in the same building. She did finally agree to an interview, but only if it was at Kent Police Headquarters. This required BBC presenter Julia George to leave in the middle of her live show being broadcast from County Hall, and trek across Maidstone to do a pre-recorded interview. Worse still it meant that the interview couldn't be broadcast in Julia’s programme on the day of the Panel.

It could be argued that Ann needed time to regain her composure, and from a PR perspective you always want to ensure the best possible interview. However, inconveniencing the press does little to promote positive relations, and is more likely to antagonise, resulting in a combative interview.

Ann’s refusal to be interviewed live after her appearance at the Panel meant she was the lead story for longer, with the debate about her future continuing.

Firstly apologise…

The Commissioner got her apology in her opening address to the Panel quickly, saying that in hindsight she regretted her decision to appear on the programme. However, she quickly lost this audience by repeatedly stating that ‘she was the best person for the job’, ‘worked really hard’ and not answering the questions fully.

The good work done in apologising was quickly undone. Constantly telling her scrutineers on the Panel that ‘I do know my job’, didn't endear her, and led some to question whether she was treating them with contempt and talking at, rather than to, them.

Keep on message…

When faced with the prospect of being interviewed by the media, or in Ann’s case the Panel, preparation is key. Consider the possible questions and answers, and the agenda behind the interview.

It was clear that she had been coached before the Panel meeting. Unfortunately her heavy use of the same phrases became hackneyed. What she failed to recognise was that the perception and opinion of many who saw the programme was significantly different.

Editorial control…

The Panel’s Chair Cllr Mike Hill asked why she had agreed to cede editorial control to the producer? This question does show a lack of understanding about how the press works, and no documentary company, regardless of which broadcaster it was working for, would have given editorial control to the subject of the project.

Ironically, if she had demanded editorial control, the broadcaster would have flatly refused and she wouldn't now be the subject of this PR debacle as the programme would never have taken place.

Not surprisingly after recording the cringing events, C4 refused to remove the most damning scenes which presumably included her confusion over her job title, appearing in a Mercedes after saying it wasn’t her style, the Chief’s retirement party and applying nail varnish at her desk.

Move the story on…

Moving the debate on from the mistakes of the past to the future is important in terms of mitigating the negative, regaining control and moving onto a more positive footing. 

In the case of the Commissioner, the situation has been exacerbated by her inability to outline her next steps in terms of community engagement and how she intends to rebuild bridges. Her proposals will be the subject of a July meeting, giving the press the chance to visit the story in less than a month – keeping her, and the office of the PCC, in the public spotlight.

Unfortunately for Ann’s PR team, moving the story on was not possible as the Sun ran a negative story about her recently appointed Youth PCC, after her predecessor had created damaging headlines which forced her to quit her post last year.

What next?

The future for Ann Barnes remains uncertain, with widespread public criticism continuing to fill the airwaves, social media and news pages. One thing is for certain – the fallout from the ‘Meet the Commissioner’ broadcast makes a very educational case study on how not to do PR.

Andrew Metcalf - Director

Andrew Metcalf

Maxim / Managing Director

posted in: advice, media relations, reputation management,

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