It’s good to see that my client Noel Edmonds’ groundbreaking new show on Sky One, Noel’s HQ, is having some effect. This week, the programme, which aims to inspire people to acts of kindness and help transform lives, tackled the case of Joe Townsend, a 20-year-old veteran of the campaign in Afghanistan.
Townsend lost both his legs to a landmine and, to help him rehabilitate and get his life back on track, his grandfather offered to build a specially adapted bungalow on his own land in Sussex. They chose a spot that could not be seen from the road and canvassed locals, who had no objection to the plan. Wealden District Council refused permission, despite the absence of any objections.
It was after this that Noel’s HQ got involved; it’s a measure of the show’s effect that it managed to get quotes from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, all of which called for the council to reconsider.
Production staff at Noel’s HQ then called Wealden District Council’s press officer, Jim Van Den Bos, who sneered down the line, saying: “we don’t deal with entertainment shows”. It’s astonishing that Van Den Bos did this, clearly off the cuff and without research into the organization he was speaking to. The first rule of the press officer is that he or she is servant to the message.
If a TV show calls with a thorny issue to discuss, a press officer needs to ask if they can call back, look into what it is they do and find out what the threat level is. Then they need to deal with the situation appropriately and, if the pressure is on, remain respectful. They must try and understand the issues and make their side of the story known with as much care and neutrally as possible.
Arrogantly dismissing the caller only leads to trouble; in this instance, it left Noel free to tell his viewers that if Wealden “would sneer at what we are doing here” then they’re “sneering at millions of others”. Wealden District Council performed a swift volte face in the wake of the show.
There are plenty of press officers in local government producing award winning work; these are the people who know that when a press officer is in the firing line, they need to keep their best foot forward, their eye on Google, their temper in check and their professionalism cranked up to 11. They know full well that if they don’t they’ll end up, like Jim Van Den Bos, holding a smoking ACME bomb.