How PR told Bilbo the rescue dog – you’re fired

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.

Published by

Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

7 thoughts on “How PR told Bilbo the rescue dog – you’re fired”

  1. Bilbo has been put through special fitness tests like other lifeguards, such as learning how to swim in all types of sea conditions, negotiating the different surf and swim out beyond the breaking waves – Bilbo does this with skill and confidence. Bilbo has been trained to recognise when a person is in distress in the sea and responds if someone is waving and shouting for help. He wears an harness onto which is clipped a buoyancy aid (a Peterson tube). This is a piece of equipment used by all lifeguards to rescue casualties. Between Bilbo and the rescue tube is 2 meters of line which acts as a safety measure to sop the casualty from climbing onto the lifeguard during the rescue, but instead it enables Bilbo to swim around the person in distress, drawing the tube close to them, and when he feels their weight clutching the tube he knows its time to turn round and swim back to the safety of the beach.

    Red tape, beaureacracy, and arguably the apathy of those large organisations in control of the situation, are conspiring to deny Bilbo his rightful place on Sennen beach as a lifeguard dog. Whilst people want to see him reinstated and back patrolling the beach, and they expect to see him there this summer, such popularity and sentimentality over Bilbo should not shadow the more serious issue that Bilbo represents – he informs about safe bathing at the beach and his message truly sinks into the minds of children and adults who come across him, and if this isn’t argument enough to reinstate Bilbo, then we are living in poor times indeed in this so called liberal democracy. Purging Bilbo from patrolling the beach seems more akin with the sort of thing our nation supposedly abhors – autocratic dictatorial styles of governing, where everything is systematised so the mighty power at the top can exercise total control over it’s subjects. Getting rid of Bilbo is yet another erosion of the preciousness of our nations diversity, putting prescriptive measures in place that conveniently apply to all situations in all places, conveniently obliterating common sense and the beauty of diverse ways of operating, to suit the needs of the might of one big controlling organisation, rich, powerful and geared towards total control and limiting the extraneous factors that might run counter to their bigger game plan.

    So Bilbo in his innocence and with all his natural beauty and instinctive life saving skills, is merely an inconvenience to the power of the mighty organisation that seeks to get make him disappear off Far West Cornwall’s busy Atlantic beach. We are living in sad mundane times indeed, and edging closer and closer to Orwell’s ‘1984’ scenario, where streamlined systems are worked by ‘yes men’ automatons and there is no place for human thinking and common sense, as we are dictated the convenient logic of the overriding power. This may seem OTT, but we’re arguably all being manipulated to conform, and losing Bilbo is a true sign of the times, and will be a great loss to the spirit and soul of the beach – and is this not valuable and worthy of fighting for?

    Bilbo is a health and safety asset, not a liability. Ask the people.

    The Penwith District Council have already stated on BBC Radio Cornwall on 19th May that “if the RNLI adopted Bilbo then he would be covered by the district council’s exemption on the dog ban” and the they would have not problem with him carrying out his duties as lifeguard dog. The RNLI can do this if they want. But will they listen to the public. They may use the excuse that Bilbo must not ride of the ATV Quad bike, but with the dog ban exemption in place he will be able to walk the sand. Plus to overcome the quad bike issue, according to BBC Radio Cornwall, a Cornish trailer company has offered to donate a trailer that can be attached to the ATV quad bike, for Bilbo’s use in getting across the beach. So you see, everything can be sorted out for Bilbo, it’s just whether the RNLI want it to. The RNLI spokesman speaking on BBC Radio Cornwall stated “Bilbo is a fantastic asset… yes he is a lifeguard dog…it’s not the RNLI, it’s the district council that have banned all dogs from Sennen Cove”.

    In actual fact the new district council rules ban dogs from the beach only between the hours of 8am and 7pm during the day, and as has been stated above, this can be got round if the RNLI decide to adopt Bilbo. But will they? The power is in their hands, and the people of Cornwall and the nation are eagerly awaiting their decision on the matter of Bilbo the lifeguard dog.

  2. What an irony that West Cornwall’s most unique and well known health and safety asset – Bilbo the Lifeguard dog – is being ‘got rid of’ for presenting a health and safety liability. The RNLI have taken over the Lifeguard Service, and suddenly Bilbo’s concession to be allowed on the beach he patrols has not been renewed this year, and he’s now not allowed to travel on the beach quad bike either in the act of promoting beach safety and ‘The Swim Between The Flags Campaign’. Bilbo the Lifeguard dog who has for three years been seen on duty at the mile long beach at Sennen Cove, near Land’s End may be purged by the might of an arguably over centralised, ‘top-down’ organisation, which appears to be acting more like a corporate enterprise than a charity, accepting millions of pounds of legacies each year from deceased who want to see their money put to good use, only to find that the nation’s favourite charity is getting rid of the nation’s favourite dog, trained to save lives at sea by swimming out to them in dangerous currents and towing them back to the safety of the beach. By using convenient excuses about health and safety and conveniently applying the dog ban rule to Bilbo this year, the RNLI are conveniently getting rid of Bilbo just for being a dog. Yet haven’t animals and dogs in particular proved their worth time and time over in helping to protect and indeed save lives time and time over throughout history- just think of the St Bernard dog of the Mountains. Are the RNLI being a little too pedantic and short sighted by not wanting Bilbo to remain part of the Sennen Cove Lifeguard team this year, preferring the 100% human lifeguard approach (ie no dogs allowed to save or protect lives on Sennen Beach this year thank you), thus showing themselves up to be a less than sensible human organisation, more machine than human orientated with common sense and vision, thoroughly missing then point of Bilbo and his invaluable safety message that ALL CHILDREN AND ADULTS seem to understand just by seeing him on the beach with his red and yellow jacket on, with the message ’Swim Between The Flags’ written on. Why does the RNLI have to go down the line of getting Bilbo to stand down from his role as lifeguard dog. The children Bilbo visits each year in Cornish schools believe in him and his message of beach and water safety because he is REAL, he actually patrols a beach for REAL and could save a life out at sea if the worst happened and a person got into difficulty in rough sea, or simply just went out of their depth. We don’t want to hear the excuses anymore why Bilbo can’t continue in his role – seeing Bilbo on duty you see a truly professional dog totally in tune with his training and instinctive ability to save lives at sea – so why get rid of him. Stop blaming rules and regulations – these can all be got round, and both the RNLI and the Council know it. Stop putting up objections to Bilbo, and listen to the public outcry about Bilbo‘s sacking, listen to children that have learned from Bilbo by seeing him in his capacity as lifeguard dog. It’s time to get Bilbo reinstated, so please stop putting up objections to his presence as a beach lifeguard, and show some flexibility and allow Bilbo to do the work he’s been trained for. Bilbo can saves lives, and his message does keep people more safe in the water, such truth should not be shirked away from – safety in the sea down at the beach is no joke, and neither is Bilbo. So why aren’t the RNLI taking him seriously? Why aren’t they bothering to make efforts to keep Bilbo where he‘s trained to be? As a very wealthy and mighty organisation, have they gone too far up their own backsides that they cannot see the light that Bilbo represents?

  3. I emailed Penwith council, asking if common sense and not petty bureaucracy could prevail.

    I got the normal “You must obey without question the ‘Laws’ that they, the non elected petty bureaucrats have arbitarily dicided to implement”:

    “With regard the dog beach ban at Sennen I have spoken to the Councils Chief Environmental Health Officer who’s officers are responsible for enforcing the dog beach ban and she has advised me of the following.

    Dogs are banned from Sennen beach between the hours of 8am and 7pm 1 May to 30 September each year. There are exemptions for guide dogs and other assistance dogs which have been trained by a prescribed charity.
    [Whose rule is this??]

    As Bilbo is not classed as this type of dog he cannot go onto the beach. Last year when the lifeguards were employed by Penwith District Council it was possible to get around the ban by allowing Bilbo to ride on the quad bike. The decision by the RNLI to not allow Bilbo on the quad bike is not one Penwith District Council can comment on.

    A £75 fixed penalty ticket has already been issued by officers on an individual who ignored the ban at Sennen beach, by allowing Bilbo on the beach and no other dogs makes it very difficult for officers to be consistent in enforcing the ban. If people visiting Sennen beach see a dog walking across the beach it creates the impression that is acceptable for dogs to go on the beach as the ban is not properly enforced

    In order for Sennen to maintain its blue flag status of which it is proud, dogs must be banned from the beach. If dogs are allowed on the beach then Sennen cannot fly its blue flag.

    I hope this clarifies the position from the Councils point of view while it is appreciated that Bilbo does valuable work in promoting sea safety at no time will the safety of anyone on Sennen beach be compromised by Bilbo’s absence as there are a full compliment of lifeguards stationed at the beach.
    Beach Manager”

    Not even the common decency to name themselves.

  4. Thanks for your comments – illustrating there is also a rational argument behind the use of Bilbo, and the poor way in which such decisions are not only made, but justified.

  5. Bilbo has been through no such training… FACT
    He is a fantastic PR tool… FACT
    He is not a qualified lifeguard… FACT
    There are a team of qualified lifeguards at Sennen who work exceptionally hard and recieve no coverage or praise, quite the opposite… FACT

    And the end of the day, Bilbo is a dog, he is a lovely dog, he has rescue instincts and webbed paws… but he is not a lifeguard, he has no concept of the beach or sea conditions… the RNLI and PDC were foolish in not reconising his immeasurable value in getting the safe sea’s message across to the public however the RNLI sought to protect the professionalism of their lifeguards whose job i understand is only undermined when the training they undertake and qualifications they have achieved are attributed to their big hairy mate!!
    Continually i read about rational rerasoning… common sense prevailing…
    Seems that they are distinctly lacking… Well done to the real lifeguards of Sennen Cove, you do a great job saving lives on a daily basis without compliments only criticism… as for Bilbo, love your work mate, hope to see you spreading the PR message again next summer!
    Cheers, Mark!

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