BACK in the very first days of the digging at Haut de la Garenne in February 2008, certain ministers within the States were accused of being more concerned about the Island’s international reputation than the abuse scandal unfolding in front of them.
It is therefore somewhat uncomfortable to learn that over £30,000 of taxpayers’ money has been spent on UK spin doctors to help ministers answer questions from the ‘international press’ once the independent Jersey Care Inquiry report becomes public.
The States have a massive communication problem and some media training must be welcomed. But that problem is with getting the message to the people it governs. That is where money, if it can be found, should be spent in training politicians and their civil servants. Even in this modern world of media and its various facets, the basic principles – principles taught to us all by our parents – are still at the core of what should be done: stand up straight, take care of your appearance, look them in the eye and tell the truth. Can there be much more to it than that? £33,500 worth more?
Yes, journalists can be tough and they work very hard to ensure that all of the story is covered fairly and accurately. But there are plenty of courses available, both locally and nationally, for media training that don’t come close to the £33,500 bill Islanders have picked up so far. Can it be that difficult for a minister to answer a question if there is nothing to hide?
Further, have any of these senior ministers – or in fact any politicians representing the seat of power – considered some training in how to speak to the public of Jersey, or on a one-to-one basis with some of the victims of abuse, once the panel’s findings emerge? Surely the report’s impact upon them is far more important than dealing with foreign journalists and the media attention it attracts.
Whatever their intentions in undergoing media training, it is going to be seen by the public as an exercise in either more covering up, an attempt to manipulate the truth or putting Jersey’s international reputation before anything else, something the Council of Ministers can ill afford.
There is a real risk the media exercise could itself turn into a local PR disaster."
Today’s front-page exclusive reveals that ministers have hired a top Tory spin doctor to advise on how they should navigate what is going to be a difficult time for this Island. Once again Jersey is going to be thrust into the national and international limelight to answer for its record on child protection and care.
It is not the cost which is going to be the main thrust of public frustration here in the Island at this news or even the fact that ministers did not think to mention that they had engaged Ramsay Jones when they were questioned about the use of Portland Communications during this week’s States question time.
Readers will recall Wednesday’s lead article which reported that the UK PR agency had been brought in at a cost of £33,500 to help ministers on how to respond to questions in the wake of the publication of the Independent Care Inquiry report, which is expected to be imminent.
It goes way deeper than that. It is the fact that, locally at least, the government’s whole PR strategy over this very difficult issue seems to be saying exactly the opposite of what they need to say before they have even said a word.
Once again, Senator Ian Gorst and his team appear to be on the back foot as they prepare for the storm. The abuse inquiry was supposed to be Jersey’s attempt at truth and reconciliation; a chance to let everyone tell their stories in an open and transparent environment.
At the very least, the employment of PR specialists creates a perception that openness and honesty are not uppermost in their minds. That may not actually be true, but the failure to explain the need for this help before they were forced to do so shows how little has been learned from cock-up after cock-up over the years.
If ministers want some effective PR advice, they might start by listening to those who are telling them to get out onto the front foot and take their arguments to the people they represent, to have the courage of their convictions and to lead.
And they might also jettison those – and especially those in the public sector – who believe that the job of a PR professional is to deny voters the honesty and transparency that must be a basic democratic right and to manage information cynically.
All too often, it seems, they seek the counsel of the latter, a lack of judgment which could cost this administration and the Island dear."