The story of Bilbo, the newfoundland dog who has been ‘sacked’ by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) was obviously going to be a great media story.
If you read the Daily Mirror report, the RNLI seems particularly heartless and you wonder about any media relations professional giving quotes such as: ‘He would fail the resuscitation test’ and ‘We can’t employ a dog as a guard. They are banned from the beach’. Both facts may be true, but miss the point of the emotional element of this story.
The Daily Telegraph (which has the dog’s age as seven, the Mirror says he’s six), cites an RNLI spokeswoman: ‘The RNLI is contracted to provide a professional lifeguarding service on the beach and has fully trained lifeguards to do this.’ And, ‘Bilbo is a privately-owned dog and does not belong to the RNLI. The RNLI will not be using the dog to save lives at sea but does not have the authority to ban dogs from the beach’. Fuller statements, but again focusing on the rational rather than the emotional argument here.
The BBC cites Rebecca Kirk, chief environmental officer at Penwith council: ‘If he is on the beach it is against the law.’ It also quotes Steve Instance, the RNLI’s lifeguard inspector the South West, with a longer explanation which draws on safety issues and a slight acknowledgement of the dog’s popularity: ‘Bilbo is a fantastic asset and we have told Mr Jamieson he can use him for PR work and safety education in schools.’
This is Cornwall sees the council place the blame for the ban with the RNLI saying it would have reached a compromise. There is nothing about the latest story on the council website, but a search reveals several links to items about Bilbo written to publicise Penwith or offer safety advice.
The RNLI has nothing about the story on its website – so we have to take the news reports as evidence of its PR approach to the decision.
This seems to be an operational decision, which the PR team may only have heard about via the media. It is always tricky to have to justify logical arguments in emotional situations, but the RNLI reputation is likely to be dented by being seen to fire a dog, especially a Newfoundland, which as I know attract a lot of public attention.
However, whenever we reflect on these types of news stories, it seems evident that a decision has been made and one-way communication used rather than identifying a problem and working, with the people affected, and the PR teams, to identify if a better solution can be reached.
Bilbo will naturally generate headlines, and the safety at sea message, as well as the role of the RNLI (a charitable concern) is vitally important. So rather than firing Bilbo, perhaps it would have been better to employ him as a member of the RNLI (or council) PR team and find a compromise regarding his role on the beach, such as how he could qualify as a working dog.
PR can be much more effective when it isn’t just called upon to give excuses.