Avoiding poor reputation by association

Following a very interesting conversation with a fellow comms person in local government, I was curious about what actions can be taken during an incident to ensure that it isn't forever known as the place that 'something bad happened'.

It's a natural assumption to think the most important thing to protect in a crisis is a person, or group of people or a brand, but what if it's a place? When it comes to the emergency services, the priority is rarely a place - it's evidence gathering, public reassurance and reputational risk around being effective and protecting life and property. By the very nature of how a lot of incidents are investigated, it is often the police that will take the lead on the communications. 

Therefore, a consequence of this is that the comms strategy will tend to follow the key aims of the police handling of the situation. However, there are many different agencies that are impacted in very different ways when it comes to an incident or situation that has an impact on reputational risk. Both public and private sector have a vested interested in how they are perceived by the media and public but these interests are often incongruous with each other and the messages can often get skewed throughout.

In the example I was discussing, it was actually the reputation of the town that a shooting had happened in the UK. From the outset, the council were keen to ensure that they wouldn't be the town known for what horrors had happened there. It was a clear and concise strategy that, in hindsight, worked - I couldn't remember the name of the town, simply the person who had perpetrated the acts of violence.

The impact of a poor reputation for a place touches upon many aspects - the people who still live there, tourism, funding, house prices, social mobility, employment opportunities and ultimately the sense of identity that place has as a result of the community who have created it by living there. 

There are a number of places that you simply have to say the name of as a shorthand to something that went wrong - and they will never shake those associations. Lockerbie, Dunblane, Rotherham will for a few generations never be able to shake their reputation. Buncefield, Soham, Bishopsgate will be linked to painful memories for many. The list goes on.

So what can be done? It's no easy task but by being concise and direct in communication - both with the media, public and stakeholders - there will be little room for conjecture and rumour. Rumour builds and feeds reputation and legend. Stop it in it's tracks and present the facts - the person, not the place was responsible and refer to them (sub judice and legal constraints notwithstanding) and what happened. 

Keep the location details to a minimum and be sure to keep in contact with the local media as much as possible - they wouldn't want to see their town be associated with atrocities. It is, sadly and ultimately, bad for business in the long run. Give them official photos, ensure there is a single point close to the scene for cameras that is manageable and not too unique. Be quick to rebut rumour and dispel myths. Following the incident, get back to business as usual as soon as possible - and as soon as is appropriate. 

Every case is very different and there is no right or wrong answer, but it should be a consideration from the start that your strategy will shape how your community will be viewed in years to come. Opinions, experiences and perception are very hard to change, but they can be shifted in a way that is not controlling or overtly manipulative and is ultimately for the long term benefit of those who expect a good service from the public sector.

The residents of these places had a hard enough time dealing with what happened - they shouldn't be punished further by living in the place that is known for desperate acts of violence, terrorism or scandal. Only you will know when this is as a comms professional, and you have a responsibility in your comms strategy to ensure that the public have their home protected. The sooner there is nothing to see, the sooner they can get back to being settled.