How not to write a press release, Argyll and Bute Council style

15 June 2012

The Twitchforks are out. The mob is assembled at the Town Hall. The global media is covering the fact that you stopped a nine-year-old girl posting photos of her school dinners to a blog.

You’re in a hole that’s getting deeper by the second. Only a well timed, carefully-worded press release can put things straight. Let’s see how Argyll and Bute Council fared with this belated offering. (UPDATE: The original content at this URL has been replaced with something very different.)

Argyll and Bute Council wholly refutes the unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs.

That’s quite an opener.

Firstly, “wholly refutes”. As a professional press officer, words are your tools so it’s worth knowing what they mean. “Refute” means to disprove something. It’s tautologous to “wholly refute” something in the same way as it is to “wholly kill” someone. You either do or you don’t. And when it comes to refutations, it’s not for you to judge. So there’s no need to get all Ed Miliband on us (“To the people who say X, I say this:”) by setting the scene. Just get on with your rebuttal already, if that’s what it is.

And in the very first sentence, the self-pity has started. This is very unattractive. The bad headlines have led catering staff to fear for their jobs. Well, that may be the case, but it’s a consequence of the situation (and, lo and behold, the council’s inept handling of it), not the core issue. So why not start with the meat of the matter before we tackle the pudding? That business about the girl and her blog?

The Council has directly avoided any criticism of anyone involved in the ‘never seconds’ blog for obvious reasons despite a strongly held view that the information presented in it misrepresented the options and choices available to pupils however this escalation means we had to act to protect staff from the distress and harm it was causing.

Isn’t stopping someone writing a blog a fairly strong form of criticism? It’s not the kind of thing you do when something is fine.

And what are these “obvious reasons”? As a press officer, your job is to clarify the unclear. Given that it’s important you should spell it out.

I’ll take a guess at this one. The “obvious reasons” why Argyll and Bute Council hasn’t directly criticised anyone involved in the Never Seconds blog is because the author is a nine-year-old girl towards whom the Council owes a duty of care given that she’s a child and attends a council school. Am I warm?

Bearing this in mind, can we consider that this duty of care persists even though the council is getting some nasty headlines?

The rest of the sentence manages to combine hypocrisy, more self-pity and a disturbing fatalism. “Obvious reasons” aside, you’re going to put the boot into the nine-year-old girl anyway. The staff are suffering “distress and harm” and the Council, rather than weighing up the situation according to its principles, “had to act” in a way that it finds distasteful.

Still following?

In particular, the photographic images uploaded appear to only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils, so a decision has been made by the council to stop photos being taken in the school canteen.

“Appear”. Such a weaselly word. Are we to understand that if the girl in question had posted a comprehensive assessment of the full menu every day that the council wouldn’t have stopped her blogging? No?

Well then.

Perhaps it’s not your students’ job to do your PR. Perhaps it’s legitimate for someone to make comment on the meals they’re eating without having to take a broader view on everyone else’s. And we can fairly assume, I hope, that the girl wasn’t choosing particularly nasty meals to eat just so she could blog about them.

So your justification for stopping the blog holds no merit at all. If the food served up in your school’s canteen doesn’t seem that appealing, don’t shoot the messenger.

There have been discussions between senior council staff and Martha’s father however, despite an acknowledgement that the media coverage has produced these unwarranted attacks, he intimated that he would continue with the blog.

More self pity. Once again, the media fallout from your decision, whether you think it defensible or not, is your problem. It’s not Martha’s father’s job to stop you getting bad press.

The council has had no complaints for the last two years about the quality of school meals other than one from the Payne family received on 6 June and there have been no changes to the service on offer since the introduction of the blog.

“No-one else has complained” should be completely banned in every form of organisational communication unless it’s in direct response to the question: “Has anyone else complained?”

The reasons for this should be obvious.

Firstly, that the number of complaints doesn’t necessarily speak either way about the satisfaction of people generally or of any individual. Not everyone who’s dissatisfied complains, at least, not to you.

Secondly, if someone is complaining now, it’s of little consolation to them or merit to you that the matter hasn’t been brought up previously. It’s an issue now, so deal with the substance and not the historical statistics.

We now get into the details of the food on offer in the school canteen:

Pupils have a daily choice of two meals from a menu which is designed with pupils, parents and teachers. Our summer menu is about to be launched and includes main course choices like meat or vegetarian lasagne served with carrots and garlic bread or chicken pie with puff pastry, mashed potato and mixed vegetables.

Pupils can choose from at least two meals every day. They pay £2 for two courses and this could be a starter and a main or a main and a desert (sic). Each meal comes with milk or water. Pupils can have as much salad and bread as they want. Salad, vegetables, fruit, yoghurt and cheese options are available every day. These are standing options and are not a result of any changes in response to the blog site.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t this paragraph only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils?

Clearly there’s an opportunity here to present the full menus served in school since the start of the blog. The council has complained that the blog presents a partial view. Why not put that right, given that the council presumably has that information? Where’s the link to the spreadsheet?

As part of the curriculum for excellence, pupils in all our schools are regularly taught about healthy eating and at lunch breaks staff encourage pupils to make good choices from what is on offer. We use a system called ‘Nutmeg’ to make sure everything is nutritionally balanced. Our staff also get nutrition awareness training so they know how to provide a good healthy meal. There is portion sized guidance which we adhere to and it is matched to the age of the child so they get the right amount of food. Second portions would mean too many calories for pupils.

I’m intrigued that “staff encourage pupils to make good choices from what is on offer”. Presumably if all the food is good, it doesn’t matter what anyone chooses.

In Lochgilphead Primary School we are piloting a new pre-ordering scheme which is designed to encourage class discussion around meal choices and also improves the accuracy of meal choices. The pupils use a touch screen to select their lunch option and the data is downloaded in the kitchen so they know how many portions of each meal are required. As they place their order, the pupils are given a coloured band which relates to their meal choice that day. They wear it during the morning, and at lunchtime they hand it to the catering assistant, who will give them the corresponding meal.

So now we discover that this is a computerised system. Even more reason to think that it would (or at least should) be very easy for the council to show precisely what is and what has been on the menu.

The council’s focus is now on supporting the school in the education of young people in Argyll and Bute.

And there we have it. The classic “We won’t be distracted by tittle-tattle and we’re getting on with the serious business at hand.” The implication is that other people have wasted the council’s time and it’s time for them to stop. If they won’t, the council will rise above it anyway. Passive-aggressive PR at its finest.

Now we can’t blame the press office for the council’s decision to stop the girl photographing her lunch. (And now the reversal of that decision.) But the structure, style and language of this press release are as tone-deaf as you could possibly imagine.

The council responded late to the concerns about their decision and when they did, they focussed far too much on the consequences of their decision for their own staff rather than on the decision itself and its context. They missed a golden opportunity to rebut criticism with comprehensive facts while accusing their critics of peddling a partial account of the situation.

While I have every sympathy for those whose jobs involve occasionally defending the indefensible, Argyll and Bute press office has made no serious effort to clarify, correct, explain and contextualise the council’s decision, choosing instead to whinge about its own poor staff and dump on a nine-year-old girl whose only offence was to want something more palatable for lunch.

I suppose they got their just desserts.

Deserts. Whatever.

Update at 14:37: Argyll and Bute Council has withdrawn the press release discussed here and replaced it with another.

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