NeverSeconds shows why PR needs to be respected

NeverSeconds blogLots of buzz about #neverseconds and almost universal ridicule of Argyll and Bute Council’s statement (see Update Three below as the council has now unethically tried to hide its incompetence) in response. The story is that nine-year old Martha Payne has been blogging photographs of her school meals and writing about what is wrong with the meals. The blog has had more than two million hits and raised nearly £2,000 for charity. But after some negative newspaper headlines the heavy-handed council stepped into ban her from taking photos in the school canteen.

I’m seeing tweets from lots of people describing this move as ‘bad PR’ by the council. And it certainly is, however I strongly suspect it’s not a public relations person behind it. My experience of working with local authorities and councillors tells me that it is likely that the photo ban idea was taken by a senior councillor or council officer. The PR person’s failing is probably just that they weren’t strong enough or respected enough internally to be able to explain to the numpty in charge that they were wrong.

The council’s reputation is taking a hit which is almost entirely self-inflicted and could have been avoided had a corporate communicator had a seat at the top table.

UPDATE: And the ban was so counter-productive the council has had to back down!

UPDATE TWO:

Leader Roddie McCuish (SNP) backs down, but it’s still not clear who made the decision. About one minute 30 seconds in he appears to admit responsibility saying “I’ve changed my mind”, but later when pressed as to what happened he claims not to know yet.

UPDATE THREE

I’m afraid that I don’t think the PR team can escape the blame for the latest staggering incompetence from Argyll and Bute Council. What on earth were they thinking to remove the original statement and replace it with the u-turn statement. They make it worse with the arrogant statement that “This statement supersedes all other council statements on the matter already issued.”

A basic tenant of good public relations is to remember that “Google never forgets” so here is the original Statement on school meals from Argyll and Bute Council before they tried to rewrite history:

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. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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

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About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.

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  • simoncollister

    hi Stuart. I would tend to agree with your analysis, but if – as you suspect – the PR person/team responsible wasn’t strong enough to push back in terms of the decision, they are certainly guilty of creating a pretty poor response.

    See this, form the opening paragraph:

    “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. 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.”

    Needlessly defensive and aggrieved, imho, which when ‘battling’ with a 9 year-old girl won’t particularly play well with the media (which it’s attacking) nor endear any empathy from the public.

  • http://www.stuartbruce.biz/ Stuart Bruce

    Interesting that the leader has now done World at One interview where he ‘changes his mind’. That first para reads like councillor/officer speaker. I’d be shocked to discover any communications professional using the words “wholly refutes” – whatever happened to plain English?

  • http://www.markpack.org.uk/ Mark Pack

    I agree Simon. It’s a dreadful press release which I suspect the PR team do take a fair degree of responsibility for. (Did they really refuse to issue such a release and get ordered to by someone more senior? Perhaps but seems unlikely given the timings and also the lack of evidence.)

  • http://www.stuartbruce.biz/ Stuart Bruce

    Given that the original statement has now been removed I’m more inclined to think the PR team were more responsible than I first gave them credit for.

  • Julio Romo

    Great post. Agree with so much of what you say Bruce!

    Ive said in my blog the quality of the PRs at said council is poor. Certainly not of a 21st Century calibre. Little understanding of social or the psychology of audiences. Decisions appear to have been based on the ‘we are the council and you will do as we say.’. Unless there is a legal issue, that type of PR is dead.

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  • http://twitter.com/robofw9 Rob Cope

    A little digging on Scottish blogs reveals that A&B council has suspended at least three of its communications officers since February, including head of communications Jo Smith.  This surely explains a lot?

  • http://www.stuartbruce.biz/ Stuart Bruce

    Thanks for this Rob. If I’d had time I wanted to try and do some research and see if their had been a reduction in the PR team. I’d expected it to have been because of cuts, but it appears from BBC, press and blog reports that it was for other reasons. 

    BBC News | Argyll and Bute Council suspend employee over ‘spy’ accounts 
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-16991417 

  • http://www.Chain-Cable.com/ Allan @ Aircraft Cables

    Sometimes, people are so sensitive to a point of neurotic. Right now in the economic climate, people will fear their jobs if something bad was to happen on any job site, let alone in a school. Parents are no better, making a mountain of any molehill when it comes to their kids. Nutrition is important but so is learning, spend less time worried about the portions and volume of food and look into what kids are learning. A PE class plays Wii now because its approved physical activity by a council of overweight middle aged educators. Our future is on a bell curve to no where.

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