Behind closed doors

By The Drum | Administrator

January 26, 2006 | 12 min read

When Atholl Duncan joined Scottish Water in 2003, the organisation was in the grip of a PR nightmare. Fresh from the merger of three water authorities in 2002, the first 12 months of the company’s existence were thrown into chaos by three events.

The first was a crisis of monumental proportions. Scottish Water was blasted in the media and in Parliament for its handling of the crypto bug water crisis in Glasgow. A quarter of a million people were forced to boil their water before drinking, after the cryptosporidium bug was found in the supply. Crypto is a stomach bug which can give healthy people diarrhoea and, in extreme circumstances, can kill elderly, frail people. The crisis wasn’t helped by the fact that one day the company told customers in one quarter of the city that the water was safe to drink, and then the next day told them it wasn’t.

The second event was more political but no less serious. Scottish Water had to replace the three charging schemes of the old companies with one new scheme for the whole of Scotland. This change saw some businesses bills go up by 500%.

Thirdly, because there had been little investment in the infrastructure in previous decades the sewer network was full to capacity in many areas of Scotland. That meant that the new company ended up telling developers that they couldn’t build new homes as the sewers couldn’t cope.

The treble whammy was summed up by the media as “Poisoned Water”, “Bills Scandal” and ”Bungling Bosses Block New Homes”. It was not a good time for Scottish Water.

Duncan – who joined Scottish Water from the relative calm of BBC Scotland, where he was managing editor of news and current affairs – admits he was a corporate communication virgin, but feels his time as a journalist has given him an edge as an in-house PR. “I think the fact that many of us in the communications team are ex journalists is a real benefit,” he says. “In-house PR is no longer writing press releases and organising photo calls. I’ve found it very different but I haven’t found it frustrating. The bit I enjoy is trying to change the way the business does things.”

One of the key tools in changing the negative view of the company was to always give its side of the story, and Duncan believes his team’s journalistic slant has driven this. “There is a lot of focus in this industry on spin and bullshit,” he says. “We don’t believe in that. We believe in giving it straight and being honest. There’s a big difference between negative and incorrect. An incorrect story is something we highlight with the editor. Some times with the negative stories, you have to take it on the chin. The idea of the media being a big nasty monster is incorrect. If we appear to be reasonable, people are more accepting. Ninety-five per cent of the time we receive reasonable treatment.”

The work of Duncan and his team has seen positive stories about the company increase by 32 percent in 2004/2005, and negative stories drop by 44 percent. These figures are not company spin, but independent media monitoring carried out by Pagoda PR.

“A reputation incident can happen any second,” he says. “We inherited an infrastructure that is archaic and, in one word, clapped out. The water pipes we have could go four times round the world, and add to that, a business that’s going through such massive change. There are a lot of challenges. We have our own customer service pledges to deal with the media.”

Duncan believes that the culture and skills of in-house PRs are changing, and companies need to appreciate their input at an earlier stage, not just when there’s a crisis.

“I reckon we need to develop a new breed of corporate communicators in Scotland,” he says. “What I want to develop is ‘reputation warriors’. Communicators who will look at the company from the outside and ask ‘should you really do that?’ and ‘how will it look?’. We need to have communicators who influence at a higher level.”

Although Duncan enjoys the switch from mainstream journalism to in-house PR, he admits Scottish Water is different to working in a private company. “I think being in an in-house team in a big public sector company in a devolved Scotland with the media we have is one of the most challenging jobs in media,” he says. “We are part of the political scene in a way that a private company wouldn’t be.”

However, he admits that there is always someone worse off. “At the peak of our crisis, we occasionally went for a drink with the woman heading the communication team at the Scottish Parliament, we always left feeling better,” he laughs.

Tom Fox is just finishing a phone call. A national Sunday paper is musing over the finer points of the investment made in the Scottish prison estate. For the past six years Fox has headed-up the small, but busy communications team at the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) - with around 5000 staff, the prison service manages Scotland’s 16 penal establishments. Before joining SPS, Fox worked at various local authorities, guiding them through the quagmire that is media communications.

As he later confesses, he is “an agency virgin,” having always worked in-house. But, with the “best in-house job in Scotland”, that isn’t about to change any time soon.

Phone call over, Fox sits down to talk: “Anybody who has ever been head-honcho of communications in any organisation knows that sometimes it is your turn to be the focus of the attention. It’s happened to me in the past in local authorities. It’s happened here. The circus moves on elsewhere... but that doesn’t mean that it won’t come back to visit.”

In his roles, both past and present, Fox has seen it all. At Monklands Council he had to deal with the infamous Monklandsgate affair - allegations of sectarianism spending discrepancies between Protestant Airdrie and Catholic Coatbridge. Later, he had to work through the tragic 1996 E-Coli outbreak that killed 17 people and left 496 seriously unwell. More recently, at SPS, Fox and his team have had to deal with the high-profile ‘slopping-out’ case. And who could forget the constant Reliance stories?

Having had to handle so many high-profile, media intensive stories, you would forgive Fox if he shied away from the media, taking the defensive role that so many public sector comms teams adopt. But no.

“We try to be as helpful to the media as possible,” he says, “Of course, there is a little fire-fighting that you’ve always got to do because of the nature of the organisation, but we try to be as proactive as we can. We don’t shy away from the limelight or hide in the trenches. I don’t think we ever respond by saying ‘no comment’. We try to be as open with people as we can be.”

Fox heads a team of three at SPS, covering the whole communications spectrum, from media relations and marketing to official correspondence, as well as being involved in briefing on parliamentary questions.

“It is far from just a press office,” continues Fox. “I think I probably have one of the best in-house jobs in Scotland. We are dealing with interesting issues across the whole range of communication routes. It’s not just about media relations. It’s not just about marketing. It’s not just about PR. It’s about all of these things. And we’re allowed to get involved and run with things. That leads to an expansion of the skill base in the team.

“We’ve been involved in consultation exercises, public information events. We handle internal and stakeholder communications, recruitment campaigns for staff and we run the website and the intranet.

“Still, in terms of contact with the national press, it is daily. It would be a very, very unusual day when we didn’t have some contact with the media.

“Really, I would be hard pushed to find a job I’d rather have. Not only do I have the best job, I have the best client.”

Fox’s attitude to the media is not one that many in-house communications managers will relate to, especially those from organisations in the public spotlight.

“It may sound like idealistic clap-trap, but in public organisations like ours, the public has the right to know what is happening, it is their money that we are spending. Of course, there are certain issues where this isn’t appropriate – issues of security or personal privacy – but, as a general principle, we are accountable.

“Perhaps though,” he continues, “the biggest change that I’ve seen in my career is that it’s now much, much more difficult to get a dodgy story spiked.

“The pressures that are on journalists have increased. The marketplace has changed. But sometimes people sitting in chairs like mine forget the pressure on the people out there gathering the stories. Still, the newspapers, to be fair, do a good job. I respect what they are trying to do. Too many people in-house blame the media for the shortcomings of their own organisation. Journalists are only there to say what happened, they don’t cause it.

“I tend not to complain. I don’t see what ranting and raving does for anyone. If I’m really upset about something, I’ll tell the journalist, but I don’t tend to do that very often. It can be counter-productive. And, if we make a mistake, we have to face up to it. We have to fix it. We have to accept responsibility. It’s naïve to say that mistakes are not made. These things happen.

“I have a very simple philosophy in life. I don’t tell lies. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t tell the wife that I hadn’t had a bacon roll when I’d promised I was on a diet, but I don’t think that it’s corporately smart to tell lies. I don’t even think that being economical with the truth is smart either. You get caught. I don’t have a good enough memory to be a liar, apart from anything else.”

This open approach to the press has seen Fox through a number of high-profile cases - none more so than the recent case of Reliance’s contract with SPS.

“The big issues for us over the last couple of years have been Napier (slopping out) and the Reliance contract. It’s been hectic, and it’s put a lot of strain on what is a small team. But, by and large, I don’t feel grossly upset in the way that the media has dealt with these issues.

“In the case of Reliance, one of the things that was quite important to communicate was that when you put a contract in place, one that draws together a variety of different elements, what you get is a degree of clarity that wasn’t there before. If there are problems, they can be fixed. But because a problem arises it doesn’t mean that it was caused by the new relationship. It means that there is a problem there that needs fixed. That was a difficult message to get across.

“It’s difficult when you are dealing with a high-profile series of events, to manage them with a finite resource. In normal times our resources are adequate to our needs, but when you get a sustained period of high-level, frantic activity, that becomes more problematic and we get put under a great deal more strain.

“But I’ve not been starved of resources. We are spending public money. We should try to be as efficient and effective as we can. We have the resources we need to do the job. The pressures lie in the fact that everyone knows when you’ve made a mistake. Because our role is as the interface between the organisation and the outside world, when we get it wrong the world knows about it.”

However, Fox is quick to admit that the pressures of the job are put in perspective when you have to cope with the subject of death. Something that he, unfortunately, has had to deal with professionally on more than one occasion.

“All of us professionally relish a challenge, but when you are dealing with people dying, it’s a very difficult thing. That is something that we have to deal with from time-to-time – when, unfortunately, people choose to end their lives in custody. It’s always difficult. You have to try and be professional, but sometimes it is hard to divorce yourself from the personal cost that some people have to bare.

“The E-coli outbreak in Lanarkshire was the first time I had been involved in something that was so tragic. When you are dealing with the sort of crisis, the natural process is for people to move from asking questions about ‘what’s happened?’ and ‘who’s been affected?’ to quickly coming to the ‘whose fault is it?’ and ‘who’s to blame?’

“You have a job to do, but you can’t lose sight of the terrible pain so many people are going through.”


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