Was the Royal Navy really that naive?

SimonCommunications, General

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.