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Better the devil you know?

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

Something remarkable happened in the world of PR this week and I was a front row witness.

When reputation management is often the prime concern why would you deliberately invite the devil in to cross your threshold? What sort of mischief could follow? So it was that I walked, cloven-hoofed, into police HQ and signed in.

Let me set the scene; Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner is launching her 4-year plan. It’s a statutory requirement to publish it, but the rules don’t say you have to go out of your way to open yourself up to self-inflicted scrutiny.

Russian roulette

I’m trying to imagine the counter-intuitive PR pitch:

“Yes, so…. this 40-page document took a lot of work and we need to launch it… we could just attach it to a press release but tell you what; why don’t we load a gun, hand it to a local hack and play Russian roulette? Not only that we’ll film it and put it on the internet come what may.”

I may have over-egged that for dramatic purposes.

In effect though that is what happened. And hat’s off because, you see, Northumbria Police and I have “history”.

A couple of years ago I had given the force a public grilling over their use of a convicted rapist as a paid informer in a sexual abuse case. Our 2-year investigation for the BBC’s Inside Out programme resulted in national headlines, red faces for the force and a national award to put in our cabinet.

Even though there has since been a change of guard at the force and commission I frankly never expected to darken the doors of Police HQ again.

So, having just left the BBC to go freelance, imagine my surprise when I get the call to ask if I’d like to give their policing plan the once over and quiz the Commissioner and Chief Constable about it on camera.

I said; on one condition. Although you are organising this and I’ll be in your employ, the normal rules of engagement must apply. I’ll turn up but I won’t be telling you what I’m going to ask. The first time you hear a question will be with the cameras rolling.

To be clear, this was never going to be the grand inquisition or exposé. This is a policy document after all and, as important as it is, this was not about uncovering a public body’s wrong-doing, corruption, or flagrant waste of public money.

The principle is what’s important. In a world where press officers and PR gurus are understandably risk-averse this was taking an unnecessary punt. Yet, there was a potential prize to be won. Credibility.

Preparing for the webcast

The cameras rolled. No retakes. No requests of “could I just do that again.” It went out as a Facebook webcast to become a part of the public record. You can judge for yourself whether this was a step forward for local democracy and accountability.

As a cynical hack I’m used to seeing right through claims of transparency.

The Commissioner and Chief Constable told me that was the motivation for bringing me in. As gambles go it was a relatively safe bet. The subject at hand meant it was unlikely to backfire. But the mere fact it could have done, is refreshing.

It’s not a revolution, but as devilish PR plans go I hope it catches on.

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