Police PR campaign lacked any evidence of professional planning

The case of the decision of North Wales police chief constable Richard Brunstrom to show photographs of a decapitated motorcyclist to the media reveals a series of lessons for any PR practitioner.

An Independent Police Complaints Commission () report has cleared Brunstrom of committing a criminal act (as the victim’s family was not informed of what was to take place), but said the force showed:

a lack of planning, risk assessment and damage limitation actions and said it needed “the highest quality advice”.

This is clearly a call for strategic PR counsel.  Instead, Brunstrom personally directed the Arrive Alive road safety initiative.  The IPCC report states:

It has been established from documentation that Mr Brunstrom was personally involved in preparing the content of the presentation and in making arrangements for the event.

The report reveals that minutes were not taken at any of the ad hoc meetings held about the event. However, an email was sent to the team, including Bethan Jones Parry, head of the North Wales Police Press Office:

From: ACPO Chief Constable
Sent: 25 April 2007 08:34
To: Parry, Bethan Jones; Anwyl, Geraint (Chief Supt); Ahari,
Esmaeil (Insp); ACPO ACC Staff Officer David Roome
Subject: Tomorrow – Disaster loomingly (sic)
Importance: High
Dear all
We seem to have lost the plot somewhat.
Too many repetitive pictures, not enough content and not enough numbers.
We have the UK press here tomorrow – we are going to have to be much sharper than this – and time is now short.
The presentation is supposed to run something like this:
• This is not a game. Real death & injury. We must have better slides than the suicide. Not enough. Not gruesome enough. Motorcyclist is outstandingly good. Me or Ga.
• UN & European context. Road safety & casualty reduiction (sic) in the round. GA.
• Look how well we have done so far. Arrive Alive/Casualty Reduction in NWP to date. Lots of facts and figures to blow away the opposition. We are the best, proved with numbers. Can include stuff on education etc, but it’s all about how good we are. The existing videos are long, boring,
repetitive and sometimes content free. FACTS are needed. This MUST include proof that we catch people, and make them pay – we’re proud to target the awkward squad. PROOF that we’re the best. PROOF that vehicle speeds have come down as a direct result. PROOF that we do engineering work. PROOF that we have retained public support. PROOF that we go for other road safety issues (seat belts, phones HGVs etc). PROOF = NUMBERS, GRAPHS & PHOTOS. We are very light on these at present – in fact there are none. Essi.
• Me on: This is where we’re going next – ie end of hypothecation, change in the rules, all-Wales system, less harsh process, more education, fewer points. Targeted enforcement, interactive signs, nationwide (Wales) driver
improvement etc etc. Altogether a better system. Me.
The whole thing at present is too long on yesterday’s emotional story (old hat; battle largely won) and far too short on facts, figures and evidence. We need to wow these people, not bore them. We are way off the mark at present.
Lots to do.
See me asap.

Qualified PR expertise should have recognised the potential issue of not obtaining permission to show such images – and emphasised the stupidity of believing the media would not report on what they had seen.  Will Batchelor of the Press Association picked up on the lack of permission gained for using the images and even sent his story on this to the police press office prior to publication. 

The event lacked any professional preparation, but rather than taking any responsibility, the report indicates:

Ms Jones Parry expressed her anger, concern and disappointment at Mr Batchelor’s actions and completely refuted his justifications: “the relationship between journalists and the police is largely based on trust, respect and confidentiality. This has been completely destroyed in North Wales by the actions of one journalist.”

Writing to the IPCC, Brunstrom also attacks the police and states that he deliberately did not follow a press protocol that had been developed following previous problems, which stipulated the police authority should have been asked for its advice.  Similarly the media liaison protocol was not followed.

There is clear advice in this case of the importance of risk assessment and contingency planning as part of developing any PR campaign. The “lack of judgement in trusting the assembled media representatives” is highlighted. 

Although the chief constable’s personal direction of this campaign probably prevented a willingness to take PR counsel, this is a damning case of poor planning, and shows an unprofessional approach to tackling an important public issue. 

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “Police PR campaign lacked any evidence of professional planning”

  1. Isn’t this interesting, because from the tone of the memo there is a lot to commend what he was trying to achieve. Certainly, a fundamental, schoolboy error cost him more than just positive media coverage and the approbation he received is justly deserved. However, as PR specialists we are constantly banging the drum for demonstrating evaluation/measurement, and for the need to be creative and capture the imagination. Somewhere beneath the mistake is buried some good communications thinking.

    I wonder, had the family been involved in the campaign at an early stage, whether they would, in fact, have been willing to co-operate with the campaign and allow the image to be shown? Sadly we live in an era where very little shocks either the media or their audiences. I have been involved in running this type of campaign, and the power of co-operation with accident victims, their families, or witnesses can be extremely powerful.

  2. Peter,

    I agree over the power of co-operation in any public relations campaign, but in this case, feel there is much more to the incident than a “school boy error”.

    The memo and general approach is evident of a specific culture and personality leading the force – which has an impact on the PR function and its ability to offer counsel.

    Shock is a powerful tool, but one that needs to be used very carefully. Again, I get a sense of annoyance with the media and hence feeling they needed to be shocked into reporting what was wanted here.

    So there is evidence of asymmetric communications with the media too. Indeed, you wonder if the reason that the event was reported wasn’t as much about the way things were done here rather than the message or content of the presentations. A strategy based on building better relationships with the media would have enabled stories to be developed rather than taking a stand-and-deliver approach and trying to control what was reported.

    Plus, if you read the full report, there are clearly issues relating to this particular case, that should have been recognised.

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