Monday, 23 July 2007

UK Flooding: The Spokesperson Bites Back

The recent massive flooding in the UK has been interesting for me, particularly because I’ve been able to sit here in the sweltering heat and watch how it’s been handled from a huge distance. And I have to say that the interview I watched recently between Sky News’ anchor and a complete unknown called Graham Bowskill had me cheering.

I spend quite a lot of my professional life coaching spokespeople who will be dealing with media. I spend a little bit of my time being a spokesperson talking to media, too. And so I guess, despite my pro-media approach to my work, I’m also inclined to ‘root’ for a spokesperson. Rarely have I found myself so involved in the moments of combat, because let’s face it this is a contact sport, as I was watching the Bowskill interview.

The story is simple: a huge volume of rain fell on areas in the UK again this week, forcing motorists to spend overnight in their cars on blocked motorways. Roads across the country were flooded and became impassable: whole communities have been flooded out with huge volumes of water - much of it now contaminated.

So when Sky News’ anchor starts to play the blame game and try to pin the misery of overnight stranded motorists and flooded homes on the Highways Agency, you’d expect spokesperson Graham Bowskill to stutter and witter, to try and defend his agency’s pathetic performance to the journalist who speaks for all of us.

Well, he didn’t. He spoke well, cogently and with dignity.

Now UK PR commentator The World’s Leading (Theo to his mates) has already made the point that spokespeople in the UK speak in a strange, strangled, doublespeak when they’re put on the spot. And Graham did that, for sure. But he also pointed out that his agency had issued major warnings to the media (and he didn’t say that the responsibility that the media bore was that of ensuring those warnings were taken as seriously as they were intended, but he might as well have, because the media does bear that responsibility) and that his agency had told people not to travel and his agency was trying to deal with a highly exceptional event. He went on to detail what the issues were and how his agency and its allied emergency services were reacting to meet the challenge – and he was doing that right up until the anchor, who had sensed she wasn’t going to win her moment of fame for nailing the twerp who was responsible for all our misery, cut him off while he was still trying to tell us how the services were dealing with the issue. She was wrong to have done so: and by God, I was (I swear, I was) on the edge of my chair cheering him on. Because a decent man, outlining a decent response - on all our behalves - to a totally unprecedented situation actually deserves our attention and our regard.

The fact is that Bowskill putting his strong case forward well actually played against everything that the journalist wanted – a cheap shot story angle that focused everyone’s rightful indignation and anger on the sucker being interviewed. And so he came through it all beautifully. It’s such a shame that nobody was there to point out how at odds with our common feeling at a time of crisis this style of ‘blame game’ journalism is. Because, of course, the media playing that game would never DREAM of facing public criticism that their response was inappropriate.

Several of Sky's interviews around the whole flooding disaster since have been in the same vein: alarmist and obviously ranging around and looking for someone they can pin blame on. Last night they cut an interview short with a chap who was telling them that the community had actually given up worrying and was taking it all lightly. Again, it's not what they wanted to hear and so they moved on and cut the interview.

And I do find it interesting that, as communities pull together in the face of this unprecedented disaster, Sky is just lobbing stones, being alarmist and generally plain unhelpful. It does seem to me that their tone of coverage is sharply at odds with public sentiment. I wonder if it will backfire on them...

1 comment:

EyeOnDubai said...

Backfire? We can but wish...

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