PR challenges for public inquiries
The government has recently set up a number of high-profile inquiries, including into child sexual abuse and the Grenfell Tower fire. As the terms of reference for the Grenfell Tower probe are finalised, this is how inquiries can earn trust
Public inquiries in the UK have a tendency to be long, expensive and not necessarily conclusive. Whilst inquiries are generally set up in good faith by an administration who is keen to get to the heart of a matter, the climate for inquiries these days can be harsh. The inquiry for child sexual abuse is on its fourth chair since it was set up in 2014 and the Grenfell inquiry chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, faced an onslaught of criticism from stakeholders before the ink was dry on his contract.
Often inquiries are set up to examine areas where there has been significant systemic failure and loss of life, and it follows that emotions amongst interested parties will be running high. Additionally, inquiries can face challenges from a lack of clarity around their terms of reference, or the terms being too wide to be achievable. If the ‘scope’ issue is not dealt with early on, then injured parties and stakeholders can develop unrealistic expectations about what the inquiry is for and what it can achieve. The wishes and demands of the victims are then projected onto an already beleaguered team.
When I ran communications for the BSE Inquiry in 1999, we faced a number of challenges from the media, from the families of victims and from a worldwide audience of scientific experts. Here are some of the lessons learnt from my experience, which stand the test of time and can be applied to other public engagement work across Whitehall:
1. Embrace technology. While I didn’t manage to persuade the committee of the merits of televising the hearings, we were the first public inquiry with a website (in 1997), and we published transcripts of the hearings via the website on the same day. This was revolutionary at the time, whereas now a live feed of digital sound or images of the hearings is standard practice. We sometimes received over 50 physical letters a day to the inquiry, which all had to be logged, so moving to an electronic environment where you can saves time and effort
2. Be open and transparent. The issue with inquiries is that justice has to be seen to be done. It’s not enough for the committee to squirrel themselves away for a couple of years. However, the BSE committee, chaired by Lord Phillips, were not keen on keeping a running commentary with the media, so I arranged regular background briefings for journalists with our secretary and solicitor. This reassured the media that we were accessible and open to questions, and gave them an insight into the running of the inquiry that built trust and understanding on both sides.
3. Publish as much information as you can. We published all our witness statements and nearly all our supporting material, and we also had a physical area for the public and media to come and view the evidence. This actually reduced the sensationalist media because a lot of the controversial material was accessible and (conversely) attracted less attention because it was not hidden, or perceived to be hidden.
4. Learn about your management team. The legal teams (particularly the barristers) may have strong views about openness, or lack of it. I was originally told by one barrister that the inquiry would have absolutely no contact with the media at all! So we had to work out this ‘marriage’ of the civil service and the legal profession to get to a better understanding and find a position where they understood the merits of public relations. The issue was solved but like any marriage, it needed work to do so
5. Keep your eye on the end game. You want the report to be taken seriously and to be acted upon when it is published. The reputation that you build up in the early days and your relationships with stakeholders and the media over the duration of the inquiry will determine how you are perceived when you publish – so invest in these relationships early on and keep working at them.
6. Treat witnesses with care. Whilst we had many interested parties – eg scientists, farmers and politicians, it was particularly important that the families of the new variant CJD victims (mad cow disease) were supported during the process. They had two full days of giving evidence and we endeavoured to give them VIP treatment within the building, and protect them from media intrusion.
7. Think about the logistics. It is a very stressful time for witnesses, however confident they are about their evidence. They will need a private area away from the public and ideally away from the inquiry staff, where they can sit prior to giving their evidence. High profile or sensitive witnesses may need an entrance and exit from the building which gives them extra protection.
8. Have a clear policy on interacting with social media. In 1997, Twitter and Facebook were not prevalent, so we didn’t face the onslaught of online criticism that has already faced the Grenfell inquiry. You need to be clear from day one how the inquiry is going to engage online with detractors. But don’t forget your supporters use these media too
9. It is possible to do this well. When our chair, Lord Phillips presented the final report to the families of the victims on the morning of the publication, he received a standing ovation from them. It had been a complex inquiry and there was no fall guy in the report findings, but the committee had gained the trust and respect of the families.
The challenge with many public inquiries is that once they are over, it is easier to see how they could and should have been approached and how they could have been improved. That is why it is so important to learn the lessons from previous inquiries, to seek out colleagues who have been involved with them, and try to learn from their mistakes and successes.
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