The Clutha tragedy and the future of Police Scotland’s comms team

The stories of pub-goers, passers-by and the emergency services have been brilliantly reported in the last couple of days. I have spent the weekend mostly decorating, with 5Live and Radio Scotland for company throughout, and more than once did I down tools to focus on the compelling commentary and testimonials that occasionally left me speechless.

Glasgow’s response to the tragedy has been inspirational and, speaking as someone with no connection to the city, I’m not sure every other community could claim it would equally emerge with its reputation enhanced if faced with a similar challenge.

Supporting those at the scene will have been a great number of people often overlooked in the reports of such incidents: council road workers, 999 operators and, yes, comms officers, among many others. Now, I’m sure no-one in those lines of work would claim a parallel in what they do with the awful reality of dealing with a major incident at its sharpest end. But, they all have their own pressures and stresses that they need to manage.

I’ve been struck by the fact that, just a day or so before this tragedy, plans to restructure – and perhaps to reduce – the Police Scotland comms service were reported.

I saw some people on Twitter welcoming an overhaul, stating that the service is currently, and universally, poor. This is nonsense. Every profession or organisation has good and bad people; Police Scotland is no exception. But more than that, there is a often a failure to appreciate that, just because we all communicate, being a professional communicator is not something that anyone can do.

(This point is a common complaint among communicators in all organisations, with colleagues and journalists usually being the biggest critics, forgetting how their professions, too, are much easier when viewed from the outside! Teachers also get the same grief I understand as, because we all went to school, we are all experts in education.)

In my relatively brief career as a journalist I covered severe weather, a fatal air ambulance crash and the death of a helicopter winchman during a sea rescue. I also worked at the NHS, SEPA and Edinburgh council over a 15 year period and dealt with a variety of difficult situations. So, I’ve seen incident handling from various perspectives. It is very rarely as ‘easy’ as people seem to think.

Sometimes there are failures, through bad luck, poor management or individual error, or a combination of factors. Often, events go well, or as well as they can do in the circumstances. We should admit that good luck or the context we’re working can play a major part in success. But it’s also the case that experienced and talented communicators make an incredibly difficult job look straightforward to an observer. The integrity of most public servants also means that they are generally very discreet about the multitude of hurdles and complications that they may have had to overcome in producing what ultimately seems likes a simple task.

While I haven’t been close to this incident in any way I’m sure that the very best of what the blue light and other comms staff have to offer will have been on display in the last couple of days: helping their bosses to manage the situation internally and externally, the public to know what’s going on, and journalists to make their reports. As communicators, we are fully aware that we are not pulling people to safety from dangerous buildings, putting ourselves in harms way to protect others, or administering life-saving care; we just have a job to do and do it as well as we can.

So, the essential contribution of those in the Police team appears in sharp relief against the background of doubt about their future. I don’t know anything about what is planned, or indeed if there are any specific plans at all. Nor do I know what the overall aspiration is, other than – I presume – to achieve better value from the service, as is common throughout the public sector and an area of organisational life that I was very much involved in just a few months ago before I left the council.

Lucy Adamson, who currently heads up the service, will obviously fully appreciate its importance. Many of her colleagues will too. Those who were doubtful will probably have a better appreciation after this weekend.

Whatever changes are to come, I sincerely hope that Police Scotland values and retains the communications capability it requires to handle terrible situations such as the one we saw on Friday night.

For now though, attention is on dealing with the aftermath of the crash, and my thoughts go to those bereaved or otherwise affected by it.


2 Comments on “The Clutha tragedy and the future of Police Scotland’s comms team”

  1. 39yearsago. says:

    personally, I have always been impressed with the Police Scotland comms folk, in whatever contact I have had with them. I would certainly echo the positive sentiments in your posting.

  2. chris holme says:

    Great post, Stewart. Good points, very well made.

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