Council press officer is "what is wrong with this country" or is he a PR twunk?

The case of Royal Marine Joe Townsend vs Wealdon council has become a classic media tale of hero and villains – with one press officer, Jim Van den Bos,  foolishly putting himself in the role as chief villain according to television’s Noel Edmunds (a client of PR consultant, Mark Borkowski):

The Guardian’s James Donaghy sort of defends Mr Van den Bos, writing:

I wouldn’t want to be Jim Van den Bos right now. He’s Wealden district council’s press officer. You may know him from such press releases as Compost Awareness Week and The National Lottery: Crowborough’s Christmas Present. Jim liked a quiet life. But then, unaccountably, he did something no sane man should ever do. He played with Noel Edmonds. And Noel Edmonds, it is increasingly clear, does not play.

When dealing with the producers of Noel’s HQ regarding the Joe Townsend case, Van den Bos apparently “sneered” down the phone that Wealden district council did not appear on entertainment shows. Whether or not anything Edmonds broadcasts can be considered entertainment is a moot point, but what is certain is that this rattled Edmonds’s cage like it had never been rattled. On Sunday night’s show he delivered a blistering tirade aimed at Van den Bos claiming he was at the heart of what was wrong with this country.

Cheered on by a crowd of craven salt-of-the-earths waving pointy foam hands, Edmonds continued: “Do you know something, Mr Van den Bos? I know I’m right,” and cited the trifecta of Clegg, Cameron and Brown as backing his cause. The consummate orator, he built to the natural emotional climax: an unveiling of a space age all-terrain wheelchair for Townsend – a moment straight out of Phoenix Nights. It made for breathless television. And it was deeply odd.

Poor old Jim must be wondering what hit him. He didn’t sit on the planning committee; he doesn’t make policy, nor enforce it. He just writes vapid, soul-destroying prose like everyone else who works in publicity. Just by reading his own work every day, he’s been punished enough. Now I imagine him living on the run, drinking water from toilet bowls, sleeping in hollow logs, a fugitive living in fear of the wrath of Edmonds’s foam-handed storm troopers. He knows he’s right, Jim. Don’t fight it.

Whatever the shortcomings of Wealden district council in this specific case (and, on the face of it, it seems a horribly cruel and petty decision) can we really be comfortable with Noel Edmonds as a kickass crusader on local issues? Noel’s HQ seemed a bit of mad fun when he was just dealing in fatuous truisms and homespun platitudes, but now he’s actually calling people out by name, declaring them “at the heart of what is wrong with this country”. That is possible, of course, but isn’t it more likely that Van den Bos is just a dreary PR twunk who got a bit snotty on the phone one afternoon? It does happen.

The “enemies of reason” blog also offers a bit of support for Jim.  Personally, this seems to be another example of PR people not really understanding the best way to react to the media – which is not to cause them to go ballistic.

To clarify, the story involves Royal Marine Joe Townsend, a seriously injured soldier whose grandparents are seeking to build a specially-adapted bungalow for him on land adjacent to their property. Wealdon Council (in Sussex) carries several statements on its website regarding the case (interesting that none includes a named contact for further enquiries): January 28, February 4, February 9, February 10

Clearly the council has to consider planning regulations – but it definitely failed to consider the risks to its reputation in not seeking to work with the family in this case.

Interestingly, Wealdon Council’s Communication Strategy document can be found online – although it lacks any reference to crisis communications.  It is hard not to deduce that there is little evidence of strategic understanding of public relations among Jim and his colleagues.

Let’s hope the current tizzy remedies that fact as I know many council press officers and PR practitioners are committed to the highest standards and invest in studying for professional qualifications as evidence of this.  As Sussex isn’t far from the centre where I teach in Guildford, maybe we should see if Jim wants to sign up for next year’s CIPR Advanced Certificate course.

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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.

9 thoughts on “Council press officer is "what is wrong with this country" or is he a PR twunk?”

  1. I agree that it is not particularly Jim Van de Bos but the Council as a whole which needs to learn from this issue. It seems to me that the Council’s position was pretty reasonable: it refused an application that was contrary to the policies that everyone must adhere to and explained to the applicant what sort of application might be in line with the policies.

    What it failed to do was explain this clearly on its web site or, it would seem, to interested journalists.

    It is scary when national journalists start attacking your organisation but if you believe that your decision was correct then you should explain it. If you believe the decision was incorrect then you should never have made it.

  2. Ben – valid points, but of course, making a logical argument isn’t always appropriate in the face of emotional issues. At the least, the organisation needs to understand the emotions involved and not simply cite policies and procedures as that will inflame the media further.

    I always think of a scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where the Jimmy Stewart character is trying to stop customers demanding all their money from his Building & Loan association – which would cause a run.

    He starts with the rational argument about rules on making withdrawals – which is unsuccessful as clearly people are upset. It is not until he gets on the same side as them, makes a personal connection and goes some way to supporting their needs too, that the crisis is resolved.

    Of course planning departments have rules, but ultimately here they will need to come to some mutual agreement with the family. One would hope that more strategic PR advice would have been aware of the need for councils to be more human in such circumstances.

    pressdr – is that Noel Edmunds or everyone in this case?

  3. Poor Jim! I agree that maybe his handling of the initial enquiry could have been better, but did he deserve the hairdryer treatment from Noel on national TV, regardless of how many people do or do not watch it?

    This is an example of how difficult local government comms can be at times. Some people may say that the Council should make an exception in this case, but how many exceptional cases are there? We have thousands of servicemen and women do a fantastic job on our behalf, and our authorities should be doing everything it can to support those in need. But once you allow one case like this to go through, it opens the floodgates to many more. Why should the ones who shout the loudest be the ones that are heard?

    If that is also the view of the Council, it could have been articulated far better, as has been pointed out by other people.

  4. Richard,

    I was hoping you might comment as we’d discussed similar incidents before. No, Jim (nor any PR person) does not deserve this type of public humiliation, especially by name as it is now online forever and he was probably just responding as told.

    But, the council should make sure that their PR team is fully trained and qualified so that they can give advise on the best way to respond, and also have the type of relationship that can identify those issues that are likely to get huge public attention.

    With the exception of Noel and his helicopter, I don’t think most people would expect rules to be thrown out for any case, but that councils need to be more understanding and personal in their communications and developing solutions to planning situations.

    I appreciate that dozens of applications are made, but in the same way in a commercial environment your customer relations team handles dozens of queries, as PR people, we need to ensure the entire organisation understands which are likely to require the guidance and advice of professional PR practitioners.

  5. I’ve never seen this show as I don’t have Sky so I’m grateful for the clip (seen as much as I need to for a few more years yet).
    As a former council press officer I’ve got a bit of sympathy with the council. They often don’t have much discretion. If they fail to follow strict guidelines then can be taken to court. What they often fail to do is remember that people on the outside often don’t know this stuff.
    So in short I’m with Ben, if they’ve made the decision for a good reason they shouldn’t be shy about explaining it in ways the public can understand if not agree with.
    Jim probably isn’t high enough up the food chain to get this changed (maybe a good example of what can go awry if PR isn’t sited high enough up the organisation).
    Jim’s mistake was to fail to genuflect at a media ego.

  6. Caroline,

    Rules is rules, but there are ways and means of managing potential issues and handling the media. I suppose one consolation for Jim is that he’s probably been bought a lot of drinks by the many who find Edmunds’ ego deserving of a little deflation.

  7. Two things baffle me in all this.

    First, why do so many people believe Noel Edmonds says when he claims Mr Van Den Bos sneered down the phone? I can’t imagine what motive our PR officer would have for doing this – though the converse situation in which the researcher might sneer is only too likely.

    Second, do we know that Mr VDB actually made this decision? I don’t – but I know that PROs are like the rest of us – they sometimes have to do things they’re told to do by their bosses.

  8. Gavin,

    The reason why people believe Noel Edmonds (apart from the fact that he is famous and on the telly) is that the claim fits with the stereotype of council employees that is perpetuated by this story. Adhering to the “rules” is seen as being jobsworth in the way it has been portrayed. So it is easy for a villain to be created to fit this narrative.

    Sneering is also a really subjective – but fits the stereotype. I also doubt that Mr VDB made any decisions here – even not to talk to the programme, although you’d expect someone in the press office to have made a recommendation, and if there is a policy “not to talk with entertainment programmes”, that came from somewhere.

    Regardless, it wasn’t the smartest thing to have said (if true). Even when journalists, researchers or anyone on the phone is being rude or unreasonable, we need to remain professional in PR – so accepting that we have been given instructions, we are still in control of the way in which we deliver the message.

    We don’t know if Mr VDB “sneered”, but was he apologetic and professional in turning down the programme’s request to get involved? We don’t know that either.

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