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Editors slam council over failure to respond to queries for a month

Micahel CaseyTwo rival editors have each slammed a local council which they say has not responded to press enquiries for more than a month.

Michael Casey, of Your Thurrock, and Neil Speight, of Thurrock Nub News, have both criticised Thurrock Council for its failure to respond to their requests during the coronavirus pandemic.

Michael, pictured, told HTFP he has not received a response from the authority since 17 March, when he was sent an email advising him the council would be providing a “daily update to all local media on any changes to public facing council services”.

His frustrations prompted him to write an editorial on the subject, in which he said questions for the council about its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak had “yet to be answered”.

In the initial email, which has been seen by HTFP, the council said: “The council will not be able to react as quickly as we would like to in responding to media enquiries but will instead commit to providing you with a proactive update on a daily basis.

“I am sure there will be an understanding about why this course of action is being taken, it will also ensure that we are able to provide you all with a daily update to ensure we keep our communication through you to the public in as helpful a way as possible.”

However in his editorial, Michael wrote: “Since the crisis began, none of our questions have been answered. We are not alone. We certainly know that Thurrock Nub News run by veteran journalist, Neil Speight has encountered the same experience.

“We also know the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter has encountered a similar ‘brick wall’. This is not our experience with other councils.”

Neil backed up Michael’s claim, saying: “Thurrock Council’s attitude to the media is appalling. They treat the media and democracy with contempt. I have many unanswered questions about really important topics of legitimate public interest.

“A couple of months ago I met with the director of communications and the senior communications officer and tried to resolve issues, not least then having the courtesy to acknowledge receipt of questions.

“They said they would do that as a matter of routine courtesy. I in turn agreed it was not unreasonable to wait 48 hours for an answer.

“The pledge about receipts has not been honoured. They have got round the 48 hours by not responding at all.”

A spokesperson for Thurrock Council said: “We made local media outlets aware several weeks ago that we would provide them with daily updates but would not be able to respond to all media enquiries while we prioritise communicating directly with our residents and ensuring public health advice and government guidance are shared and followed while the borough and the country deals with coronavirus.

“Since the social distancing measures came into place Thurrock Council has issued local media with 26 daily updates and 27 press releases outlining changes to services, support for vulnerable residents and other actions taking place, covering information requested by the local media and providing much more besides that.

“In that period we have issued six email newsletters to over 100,000 addresses advising on public health matters and actions taken by the council. Each edition was opened by an average of 50,000 residents. In addition, four email newsletters have been sent to almost 2,000 businesses signposting them to support available.

“On top of this the council has shared more than 360 social media messages related to coronavirus and the council’s actions in light of the pandemic. Between them these have appeared on people’s screens more than a million times and been interacted with nearly 8,000 times.

“It is also worth noting that during this time Your Thurrock has submitted a total of six media enquiries. The first of these we responded to on 23 March reiterating that we were prioritising communicating with residents directly over responding to media enquiries and reminding them that we were issuing daily updates. The information requested was provided in a proactive press release.

“The current arrangement is being kept under review.”


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  • April 27, 2020 at 9:38 am

    Thurrock Council has sporadically issued its daily update as they say above.
    It usually reads:
    “Thurrock Council – Coronavirus Communication
    Daily Update: 24.04.20
    There are no changes to Thurrock Council services to report today.

    The council has now issued an edict saying that the media cannot contact senior councillors directly.
    Michael, myself and Steve Shaw (LDR) had tried to do that to get a response,
    We received this from the council comms team:
    “We would ask that any request for information from councillors in ceremonial or Cabinet roles continue be made through the communications team.”

    As for 360 social media messages – yes they have. On the council’s twitter feed, a rotating staccato of generic messages.
    What is it they say about statistics?

    For a small unitary authority Thurrock Council has a disproportionate number of people in its comms team, including a director of communications and at least two ‘Senior Communications Executives’ – but possibly more – plus other officers and at least one apprentice. I can’t tell you exactly because they refuse to say how many people are in the department!
    They certainly have the capacity to answer questions in a timely manner as well as do their other jobs.
    and we are not talking about trite, meaningless questions, but enquiries in the public interest. It’s not a capacity issue – it’s willfully imposed policy issue.
    One of the questions came about from the media because ‘whistleblowers’ in the refuse department told us about breaches in safety. There was no response. Eventually the union stepped in.
    Those of you who are interested can read this story.
    I really don’t think I have been unreasonable. I gave the council sight of the stories and gave them 48 hours to respond in each instance.
    I have told the council unless it changes I, and my media colleagues, will have no option but to make a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner. I gave the council a long list of unanswered questions and the reasons why myself and colleagues were so frustrated. I have genuinely tried my damnedest to work constructively with them but all to no avail.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 10:24 am

    Absolutely incredible. You’re not allowed to contact senior councillors directly (despicable in and of itself) and have to go through the press office… which freely admits it is deliberately ignoring all press enquiries.

    Perhaps local and national press should start nicknaming Thurrock as North-Korea-on-Thames until the council gets its act together.

    Has anyone informed Rotten Boroughs?

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  • April 27, 2020 at 10:31 am

    pot and kettle. a friend sometimes contacts local paper with copy or suggestions. never even an acknowledgement even pre-virus. terrible PR.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    I’d advise any reporter facing this problem of refusal to answer or any obfuscation to write the story anyway. Include within the story the questions asked and why they needed clear – and this is important – answers (clever councils answer difficult questions in such a meaningless way that they reveal nothing). Ignore the council edict but name the council member if they refuse to speak to you. If they don’t quote the opposition members. The council run by a conservative administration and is NOC. Highlight the Labour and Lib Dem’s work, especially prospect parliamentary candidates. If the Tory MP won’t help. It’s important that you remain fair in all your dealings. But if they don’t like what they see it is only their own fault.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 3:31 pm

    Paperboy, PR is not a journalist’s job. I get 250+ emails every day. If I answered all of them I’d never get any stories written. Whereas the council’s comms officers’ first job should be to answer questions from local journalists.

    We’ve had similar answers here from press officers. Sometimes they say they’re ‘too busy on internal comms’ to answer our questions. Well surely senior officers should be doing their own ‘internal comms’ (by communicating with their own staff)? We’re also facing a ‘gloves off’ scenario where we have no choice but to publish our stories without council comment and then tell our readers, within the story, the questions that the council refused to answer. Strangely, they’re very quick off the mark if they feel we’ve got the story wrong.

    We don’t want this to be the situation. We’d much rather have a better relationship with council comms staff.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 4:41 pm

    Midlander. Agree. PR is the job of someone else on the paper. What does it say if people do not get replies? How many don’t bother again? It can’t be beyond the wit of someone in IT to create a message along lines of “Thank you for your e mail, which we will be considering.” It’s also called good manners. Newspapers need all the friends they can get.
    I am not excusing the council mentioned. They sound a rum lot.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    I was going to ask the question of why a small unitary council feels the need to have a director of communications and a senior communications officer. Seemed overkill to me and I worked on both sides of the fence during my career. Then Neil Speight in his comments revealed there are actually two, not one, senior communications officers plus other communications staff employed by this authority. Seems they have something to hide in Thurrock…….

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