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'Surviving a silly season onslaught: our brush with the red tops'

Simon Deacon
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There are three things certain in life: death, taxes and the annual media silly season.

Unfortunately this summer in Northamptonshire we were hit by a particularly nasty bout of the latter.

As all responsible comms teams should have been doing, we had been making hay while the sun shone. We tend to use these weeks, when there are no council meetings and there is very little news, to push forward campaigns to a media hungry for copy.

We had used the calm period to promote our fostering recruitment campaigns, our latest event for mass participation public health and then, through no fault of our own, after navigating through a few days of very difficult budget messaging and the associated national and local media coverage, we found ourselves at the mercy of the very worst kind of ‘council gone mad’ national silly season story.

Our recently published adult learning brochure included information on a course admittedly rather amusingly entitled How to Wear a Scarf Effectively. There had been some witticisms on local social media accounts about it but having satisfied ourselves that this was actually an annually popular course, which was entirely self-financing through learners’ fees, we thought it raised very little real concern for us reputationally at that stage.

However, that was before a news agency came sniffing. A simple media inquiry was put in to us regarding the story and we gave a statement explaining how such courses were self-funding and, knowing the angle the agency so desperately craved, that not a single penny of taxpayers’ money was used to pay for the course.

In hindsight it was depressingly inevitable that the news agency decided not to use our statement and then sent out, to all the red tops and council-baiting media, a story with a headline along the lines of ‘CASH-STRAPPED COUNCIL BLOWS TAXPAYERS’ MONEY ON SCARF WEARING COURSE’.

Naturally enough bedlam ensued. We spent the next three days playing red top bingo as the coverage flew in. We had several heated phone-calls with the agency in question, which, it turns out, has no regulatory body as agencies aren’t covered by media regulation, and it finally released an addition to its story giving our quote. Of course, it was all too late.

While some of the insults thrown our way by various social media accounts were indeed very creative and made us smile, it was truly frustrating to be the subject of a piece of, at best, misleading reporting, which clearly sought to show us as profligate at a time when, as a sector, we have nothing to be profligate with.

And the lessons learnt? Exercise extreme caution when dealing with certain news agencies. Scour adult learning brochures for any potential own goals no matter how disingenuous. Or failing that, take August off next year.

Simon Deacon, head of communications and marketing, Northamptonshire CC

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