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.