Was the Royal Navy really that naive?

SimonCommunications, General2 Comments

PR Week has a piece about the selling stories saga that has unfolded since the 15 British hostages were released by Iran.

I’d been wondering about how the initial decision was reached, apparently by the Royal Navy, to allow the sailors to sell their stories to the highest tabloid bidders. This decision was reversed a couple of days later once it was clear that public opinion found this unacceptable.

According to the PR Week article, the Navy had

allowed its personnel to deal directly with media organisations in a bid to appear transparent.

Each freed hostage was given a “media shield” to give strategic advice, but these “shields” weren’t involved in financial negotiations.

I just can’t see how anyone considered it would be appropriate to expose the freed hostages to the tabloid media, particularly just hours after they’d been released from the worst experience of their lives.

Surely the Royal Navy had a duty of care to its people that meant it should have actively protected them from the media in the hours and days following their release.

Media handling is a specialist skill, especially when dealing with the charged world of tabloid news gathering, so why on earth would it be appropriate to let the hostages deal directly? The transparency argument just doesn’t add up.

What amazes me even more is that apparently when the deals were done, the Royal Navy was surprised that the unsuccessful bidders didn’t go away nicely:

We had people who wanted scoops [who didn’t get them] and so we had people who spoiled it and stirred things up a bit.

It’s pretty much standard practice for the tabloid papers to run spoilers or attempts to discredit people or stories when they’re unsuccessful in the bidding for an exclusive. Any PRO worth his salary should have predicted that scenario.

It’s easy for me to write this with the twin benefits of hindsight and no time pressures, but I would have expected the Royal Navy/Ministry of Defence communications teams to have plans in place for any of the scenarios that could have happened once the sailors were captured.

Maybe they did and their error was to misread how the sale of stories would be perceived in the wider world.

It’s really disappointing that what should have been a story about successful diplomacy and happy homecomings rapidly deteoriated into a story about poor media strategy and handling by the public relations people.

2 Comments on “Was the Royal Navy really that naive?”

  1. Andrew Wake

    Simon, good post and a subject well worth debating. Having spent a large proportion of my working life providing media relations for a large police force, the apparent decision of the Royal Navy absolutely amazed me.

    My former force prides itself in its duty of care to victims and their families and this naturally extends to the inevitable and understandable media interest in cases. It’s called media management and having known many MOD press officers I have difficulty believing they would be so naïve in the situation of the captured sailors & marines.

    The obvious option which was open to them was pooled broadcast and print interviews – a managed facility of unpaid one to one’s as an extension to the news conference that was held. This would have allowed the service personnel’s stories to be told in a controlled and fair manner and avoid the backlash of the ‘unsuccessful’ media and the distaste felt by many at an apparent profiteering from a still unclear situation.

    I feel that relaxing the rules for those involved to accept payments was a strange decision and as you quite rightly pointed out anyone working in media relations could have predicted the potential anger this would arouse amongst the military, the media and the general public.

    As a result of this mismanaged media fiasco, individuals have been poorly advised and subsequently vilified. I wouldn’t be surprised if we now see claims from Turney and Bachelor against the Navy.

    Something tells me that the decisions involved in this case were probably not made by communications professionals or military personnel…

  2. simon

    Andy – thanks for the comment and insight into the alternatives that would have existed in this situation.

    I agree with you that the decisions probably didn’t lie with comms or military people – after all Des Browne has made a semi-apology for the decision he took so there’s definitely politics at work.

    That said, I still can’t get my head around any logical reason for the decision that was made, whether it was politically motivated or not.

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