Mark Whitehead 04 December 2018

Saying sorry goes a long way

Many councils use social media nowadays to spread the word about the good things they're getting up to. But there are not many who would put their leader on the internet making an abject apology directly to the public.

In Barnet, north London, the bungled reorganisation of the bin collection service sparked an outcry when people went for weeks without their rubbish being taken away and refuse trucks clogged the streets while their crews tried to work out where they were supposed to go.

To try and calm feelings, council leader Richard Cornelius spoke in a one-minute YouTube video making a clear, direct apology and promising it would soon be back to normal.

'I would like to apologise to the people who have been inconvenienced in the borough,' he began. The video was flagged up on Twitter and other social media so that people knew it was there.

Standard PR advice when something goes wrong is to 'fess up', admit what happened and apologise.

But examples of such a straightforward act of contrition delivered in person on the social media, as happened in Barnet, are hard to find.

Issuing a press release or reading a prepared statement at a council meeting is the more common format. But it doesn't always work, and sometimes lacks conviction.

This summer East Devon district council issued an impersonal 'we regret' apology after a worker mistakenly mowed a whole 9-acre meadow being used for David Attenborough's Big Butterfly Count. 'We regret that one of our operatives misunderstood the instructions he was given,' the written statement said.

The leader of Walsall council, rowing back on offensive remarks made about travellers, apologised to 'anyone who was offended', saying it was 'certainly not intended or meant'.

Recently in Norwich it was left to 'a spokesman' to apologise for the city council's five-year delay over repairs to a block of flats that were supposed to have taken a few weeks.

More seriously, both the then leader of Kensington & Chelsea council and prime minister Theresa May were accused of failing to apologise properly in the aftermath of the horrific Grenfell Tower fire disaster last year.

But compared to the usual format Cllr Richards took a much more direct, personal approach and by using social media seemed to understand that most people no longer read their local newspaper – if it still exists – and are much more likely to go onto the internet for their news.

There are obvious potential disadvantages to the direct approach – many seeing the video would not have known that some residents were fuming with rage over what they saw as a botched job which went badly wrong and left many with no bin collection for weeks on end.

Nor would they necessarily know the context in which the Tory-run borough had been dubbed the 'easyCouncil' by its critics after stripping out services and handing them over to a private sector outsourcing company. Nor that it had subsequently brought the same services back in-house after serious underperformance issues and a £2m fraud by a former employee.

And it could be argued that by giving the council leader the uninterruptable platform of a YouTube video, he was at an advantage over his opposition critics who could not hit back immediately to challenge anything he said.

But in a week when the Care Quality Commission – the official government watchdog – warned that many councils were failing to deal properly with a rising tide of complaints over adult care services, Cllr Cornelius's direct approach in this instance seems like a breath of fresh air.

It will not in itself end the controversy over Tory Barnet's policies – and the arguments about the bin collection fiasco will no doubt continue – but at least, in these impersonal times, it adds a human touch.

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