When Hayley Court (pictured) took an external comms role to represent South Yorkshire Police (SYP) at the Hillsborough Inquests, she believed she was taking on a role that would finally see the police force accept its shortcomings and position itself positively for the future following its mishandling of the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives.
She soon discovered that her expectations didn't meet the force's expectations of her role. Far from helping to communicate the truth, she found that she was expected to 'spin' the news coming each day from the inquests, specifically focusing attention on discrediting evidence in favour of the fans.
PR is not spin. PR is not a dark art and nor is it about suppressing the truth. In a world that seeks more transparent and accountable public institutions, PR is about creating an open and honest dialogue with key stakeholders, usually through the media. For anyone working in PR, key to honest reporting is challenging anyone who utters the word 'spin'.
For any institution that finds itself in a crisis situation, it needs to focus on communicating the truth and answering questions.
By the time the inquests started in 2014, SYP should have moved on and focused on repositioning itself with the public, answering questions, setting a new tone and rebuilding the trust of the public and the media. Instead, its press officer was instructed to 'emphasise evidence favourable to the force' and highlight any allegations of misbehaviour on the part of fans. The latter point was not substantiated at the inquests' conclusion because it was a lie told in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and subsequently maintained over the years.
Answering questions truthfully and being transparent with difficult information is critical to helping your organisation in a crisis. It's part of addressing a crisis head on. Lies, such as those told in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy, sadly helped to prolong an agonising path to justice for 96 families who just wanted the truth to come out.
PR is not about rounding up journalists and telling them 'this is the line'. They will soon tell you where to go! Lie to the media and your stakeholders, and that will come back to bite you in the most negative way. Hopefully, SYP has now learned this.
She believed it was an opportunity to help South Yorkshire police deal truthfully and face their failings which caused the disaster, and their conduct in the aftermath, when the force blamed innocent supporters who were the victims of the lethal crush at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. She planned to write objective, daily reports from the inquests for the force’s website, and to prepare for its stance afterwards, which she believed should be to accept responsibility. However, from her first day in the job, 19 May 2014, Court said she was expected to be a “spin doctor” for the force at the inquests at the court in Warrington. Court said she was told: “Your job is to round up the media at the end of the day and tell them: ‘This is the line.’”