One evening, just four days after I joined the Metropolitan Police, my (then) PA came in to my office. Rather smugly, she threw a copy of the Evening Standard on my desk. It was open at page nine. She commented on the short time it had taken to get my name and mugshot in the paper, and turned and walked out.
I spotted a small piece mentioning a comment I had made earlier that day to the Greater London Authority concerning staff attrition rates. My comment was harmless – or so I’d thought. It wasn’t.
So began my lesson about how the media was not only interested in crime, but also in the goings-on within my organisation.
The Met needs the press to help us in our work of fighting crime. And there are many occasions when they really assist us positively to do our job. But there is another side of the equation that is not quite so helpful.
The daily press cuttings here are usually at least half an inch thick. The Met is big news; just look in the papers today and count up how many police-related stories there are.
Add to it the amount of TV coverage – fictional or documentary – about the police, and you will understand why everyone has a view about the Met. My mother-in-law actually believes every storyline in The Bill and every word printed in the Daily Mail. Why shouldn’t she? She knows no better.
The trouble is that the same stories often reach our workforce before we have the chance to think about staff reaction, let alone inform it. And don’t think this is a question of poor communication, because we use all the same communication techniques and systems as the rest of you.
There is no area of our business that is uninteresting or taboo to the press. A close Californian friend of mine was recently in town. He was able to tell me lots of stories about my organisation, all of which had appeared in the US press. My neighbours tell me the same stories. So do my friends. And my mother-in-law.
In this environment, it is no use for a manager to say it is all too hard, or ignore it, or try to counter every inaccurate word or story. Or rue the fact that so much management time is taken up dealing with staff responses to the latest media story.
It is part of the managers’ role here to anticipate and plan for what the media might say, or to forecast the take they put on a story. Every issue in my organisation has potential media interest. The smallest managerial issue can sometimes turn into the biggest headline.
In reality, this means that staff opinion can be as manipulated as the general public by an increasingly powerful media. And sometimes, they don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. If we react to every word, it means managerial distraction, maybe even obsession, and takes us away from our day jobs. I guess it’s just one of those things we live with. But it’s tiresome and unhelpful.
Quite often, the biggest impact of this is felt by our staff or by our managers. They don’t like their organisation being hammered in the press. Requesting a letter of correction – which may not be printed – is often all we can do to respond.
So what can we do? We can think our way better through the consequences of our decisions and anticipate reactions better than we sometimes do. We can reflect, too, that our own reactions will be different from those of our staff, who might be unaware of the constraints or context we operate within.
If, for one moment, we place ourselves in their position, we might plan differently. We must never forget that the most important opinion-formers for customers within an organisation are our own employees. Get the message right with them, and there is a prospect that the message might be differently communicated elsewhere.
But it’s easier said than done – I know that only too well.