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Black Letter Communications Blog

Expert pr advice for the legal sector

The Post Office: PR in the firing line

The Post Office scandal has caused significant damage to the reputation of the legal profession and now, following evidence from former Post Office boss Paula Vennells and her former director of communications Mark Davies, the PR profession is not coming out covered in glory either.

It was reported that Ms Vennells killed a review that would have exposed the Horizon IT scandal over a decade ago after she was told it would make “front-page news”. Subsequently sub-postmasters continued to be prosecuted and the Post Office continued to fight attempts to appeal convictions.

Ms Vennells was told by Mr Davies that a full historical review into around 500 cases of Post Office operators accused of false accounting would “fuel the story” beyond the “usual suspects” who were reporting on potentially unsafe convictions.

He wrote: “If we say publicly that we will look at past cases … whether from recent history or going further back, we will open this up very significantly into front-page news. In media terms it becomes mainstream, very high-profile.”

Vennells responded that the most urgent objective was to “manage the media” although at the inquiry she denied that her decision not to review the many miscarriages of justice had been led by her public relations adviser.

In her evidence Vennells also apologised for suggesting that Davies use “exception” in press releases as a “non-emotive word for computer bugs, glitches, defects”.

Under pressure

These revelations shine a light on the role of communications professionals and their responsibilities when advising their employers or clients. What should the role of a PR adviser be and what can those exposed to emerging wrongdoing in their own organisations learn from this? The question is particularly pertinent for legal PRs and litigation PR specialists who are likely to be called upon to give advice where a legal action is anticipated or ongoing.

It’s certainly a reminder of the dangers of becoming too enmeshed in an organisation and the importance of independent advice. Managing communications during a crisis can involve pressure from the organisation itself, perhaps to present their case in a certain way or to block journalists looking to investigate. It can be hard to ask difficult questions, to push back or to insist you are given a truthful account of what has gone on, particularly if you are in-house and fear repercussions for your own career. In order to give the correct advice, however you do need to gain a clear and candid understanding of a situation.

The long view

A PR adviser should be able to take the long view and see several steps ahead. What are the likely scenarios and how will they play out in the media? While actions taken in the moment might kill a story at the time, will you be storing up problems that will see far worse consequences in a month, a year, or ten years’ time? Aside from the moral arguments, what will the long-term impact on the reputation of your organisation be?

The media impact of a story should always be taken into consideration but it should not be the overarching consideration above all else. You can explain what the media reaction is likely to be but the job of a communicator is to prepare for that and handle it in the most effective way possible rather than being a reason to avoid necessary action.

The importance of language

As legal PRs, our job is often to find the best language to effectively communicate our key messages to our target audiences. There is a lot of skill involved in finessing the words we use to explain a business’s strategy, new hires, new services or perhaps difficult decisions.

But language also needs to be clear and words should not be used that become so vague as to obscure what is actually taking place or cross the line into cover-up and deceit. Where possible you need to ensure clarity in your communications and build trust in what your organisation has to say, even if sometimes that means being upfront about past failures.

The Post Office scandal has made us all think long and hard about how such a situation could have occurred, impacting so many lives for so long. Those in the PR profession should reflect on our own roles and actions and what we can do to ensure we advise on communications strategies that take into account the long view, provide clarity rather than obfuscation and consider the human impacts over and above unfavourable headlines.

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