The reaction to Mr Bates vs. The Post Office has been extraordinary in a variety of ways. As an oldie it’s made me nostalgic for the good old days when you could walk into the office confident that your colleagues would all be talking about the same TV programme. I’m also chuffed that the return of this kind of mass viewing experience has had such a huge impact on the public and politicians, reminiscent of the iconic dramas of my childhood, Cathy Come Home (highlighting homelessness) and Boys from the Blackstuff (highlighting long-term unemployment).
That said we should not forget the remarkable investigative reporting which exposed this scandal when no one else was interested, most notably Computer Weekly which, according to Press Gazette, has produced some 350 stories about the scandal since 2009 and the news outlets including The Times and The Mail who have followed it closely for years. I’ve lost track of the number of times I found myself crying at heartbreaking interviews with victims on the Today programme in the past year. So let’s give a shout out to news as well as drama.
But as a press officer the other element of the drama that intrigues me is the role of the PR people in the Post Office. You can’t chat about this awful story for long without someone asking, ‘how was it allowed to happen?’ I have no insights into this case, but one of the reasons I found the drama so unsettling was because I recognised a familiar culture in which protecting the reputation of the institution trumps all else. And I was not alone in this observation. I’ve had lots of messages from friends in science who have also encountered this culture and share my aversion to certain types of corporate communications managers. Like me, they detected the cold hand of corporate comms in Mr. Bates. One said, ‘watching this with my in-laws who can’t believe people behave like that. Told them I sit in many meetings being gaslit by people just like this’. These ‘types’ are generally very senior and have a seat at board level and senior management. Like Alastair Campbell and Dominic Cummings, they are much more than media advisors, playing an influential role in all key corporate decisions. These are the comms people I encounter more and more who explain that they cannot allow their scientists to be interviewed or won’t be putting up a spokesperson because the risks to the organisation outweigh the benefits.
In one scene in the drama, Paula Vennells, then CEO of the Post Office, is questioned by politicians at a select committee (with Nadhim Zahawi playing himself). She replies, ‘this is about the reputation of the Post Office’. Bates’ partner, who is watching proceedings from her Snowdonia home, leaps from her settee, makes a vigorous V sign at the TV and shouts, ‘no it’s not, it’s about people’s lives you moron’. Glorious.
I can’t remember exactly when I started to come across these kinds of corporate communications people in science, but I know I took an instant dislike to their attitude to communications. They weren’t around when I was setting up the SMC 20 years ago, or maybe I just never came across them. Back then I was excited to find a breed of press officers in the science world who represent all the best aspects of this profession. The typical science press officer had studied science at university but decided on a career in science communication rather than research. What characterised them was a love for science combined with a determination to ensure that science reached the public in a measured and accurate way, devoid of hype with complexity and caveats explained accessibly and openly. The instincts of this breed of PR people is to help journalists answer their questions, to convey the wonder of science, to ensure the best evidence prevails in media rows and to challenge the disinformation that can harm health and environment. They became my tribe and I continue to relish every opportunity to work with them. Back then, these press officers typically eventually rose up the career ladder to become head of communications at universities and research institutes. Many missed talking to journalists and scientists in their elevated roles but enjoyed thinking more strategically and continued to champion research comms teams at the highest levels.
But then something changed and it became clear that a glass ceiling had developed between ambitious research press officers and these top comms roles. One science comms friend with a stellar CV was not even getting interviews for more senior posts in universities. When she asked for feedback, she was told that they needed people with more corporate or commercial backgrounds. The new people I met in these roles were of course a mix and some were excellent. But the type I was reminded of while watching Mr Bates vs. The Post Office are definitely on the rise. One who replaced a brilliant head of comms at a top research university stood me up for two meetings before finally meeting to tell me that ‘science and the media does itself at [redacted]’, which didn’t leave us much to talk about. When I asked about her background, she explained that she had been in government and was an expert in ‘change management’. When I asked what that meant she said a lot of words I did not understand. This corporate comms speak has now become depressingly common. Press officers who have moved on from the SMC report a new life of back-to-back meetings where people speak an obscure corporate language which elicits W1A style nodding from others around the table.
This culture is brilliantly observed in the Post Office drama. When the high court judge asks Angela van den Bogerd, Head of Network Services at the Post Office (who variously held job titles like People & Change Director, Head of Partnerships, and Business Improvement Director) what she means by ‘protecting a brand’, she replies, ‘one, it is making sure about how we do things, how we behave, and interact with people.. and it’s just making sure that at all times we are maintaining that’. I loved that scene. The faces of the barrister and judge and Alan Bates and team said it all. ‘Protecting the Brand’, the phrase used by so many for so long to justify so much was in fact meaningless to ordinary people. When some of the plain-speaking postmasters had earlier said people like Angela are very smart, their lawyer responded, ‘they are very corporate’, inviting us to see that the two are not necessarily the same.
As a group these corporate comms types tend to be risk-averse and often tell me that putting up scientists during a media row is ‘fanning the flames’ and best avoided. I have 100s of examples of this. One recently tried to block their Cystic Fibrosis clinicians from speaking to journalists about the benefits of an amazing new treatment because NICE had just assessed it as too expensive for use in the NHS. ‘I don’t think we need to be putting our scientists between patients and NICE’, he told me, despite the fact that those scientists had led the clinical trials and wanted to explain the outstanding results to journalists. One university who had loads of fire and building experts declined our plea for experts to comment on the Grenfell fire tragedy because the story was ‘just too sensitive’. Clinicians who specialise in end-of-life care or mitochondrial disease were banned by senior comms experts at NHS England from speaking to the media about the Charlie Gard case even though the Pope, Donald Trump and Theresa May had all had their say. A guy who had come from a supermarket to head up comms and external affairs at a major university during the Climategate crisis later told me that he did not consider the public interest in getting the truth about climate science out there because his role was to ensure the scandal did not stop students applying to the university (then gleefully reported that the raised profile had in fact resulted in increased applications). We regularly have scientists willing to speak to journalists in the midst of a media storm who are prevented by senior comms managers who have assessed such interviews as a ‘corporate risk’. We have christened these types as ‘anti-comms officers.’ One once described the SMC as ‘quaint’ when I argued that helping journalists should be automatically expected of media relations teams in publicly-funded research organisations.
Another characteristic of this type is that they generally dislike journalists – strange for people who have chosen a career in PR. When a central corporate comms team discovered that I had been invited to give a talk to 200 of their scientists at a lab outside London, they turned up at the talk uninvited and were hastily given a slot to respond to my talk. While I had shown slide after slide demonstrating how scientists engaging with media can improve the quality of the story, the corporate comms officer took to the stage to warn the academics that this was rare and that they should view journalists as people out to get a scare story or set them up against government. Not surprisingly I left the lab with no new recruits. I agree that engaging with the media, especially when science is in the headlines, can go wrong, but that’s why scientists need maximum encouragement, guidance and support from their comms teams. The bit that is always missing with these people is any concept of the wider public interest in hearing from the best experts at times when science is contested. If you doubt any of this, take a look at a few job descriptions for these roles. We spent a few hours doing this once playing a spot the word game – we failed to find almost any mentions of journalists or the public, but one used the word ‘strategic’ over 20 times.
Given that there was no obvious character playing this kind of a head of comms in the TV drama, why were my colleagues and I reminded of them? Because I have not one shred of doubt that senior communications managers were central to the Post Office’s response. News from the public inquiry this week revealed that emails ostensibly written by Stephen Bradshaw, the Post Office investigator, were in fact written by the PR department and that a senior PR manager had made several attempts to thwart the BBC Panorama investigation in 2015 – far from helping journalists get to the truth.
Another tell-tale sign of corporate comms involvement was the way in which desperate postmasters were repeatedly given the exact same line by staff manning the help lines – that no one else was having these problems with the computer system. While I have seen denials that there was a script, I can testify to other cases where comms officers appear keen for all external comms to be ‘aligned’ in their messaging. One science body who clearly felt the SMC was encroaching on its role in responding to national emergencies would regularly reply to our call outs for rapid reaction comments with the same phrase: ‘Please put all media calls through to us. Your work is not helpful to our operations on the ground’. When a press officer at a cancer charity who we got on well with moved to work for them, we held an office sweepstake on how long it would take her to send us that same email. It was a matter of weeks.
Everyone will have their theories about how the Post Office scandal was allowed to happen. The least compelling for me is the idea of an organisation full of bad people doing bad things. But I think even talented and impressive people can be a force for bad when a culture takes hold that puts organisational reputation and brand protection above open and honest communication.
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.