Teenage Dreams (PR Nightmares)

I imagine that DSD (the Department for Social Development) were feeling rather smug last week, as councils and government departments do in these circumstances, upon the unveiling of city centre “graffiti” having been removed to make way for some Across the Barricades -type youth work to create a new piece of “art” in Belfast.

Photo credit: BBC news website
Photo credit: BBC news website

But the possible good PR opportunity flopped.

There were a few main problems with it that I can see:

  • “Teenage dreams so hard to beat” was a popular mural at the Bridge End flyover for many years
  • Contrary to the Belfast norm, the mural wasn’t sectarian in nature. Instead it was a tribute to the late DJ John Peel, whose playing of Teenage Kicks saw local band the Undertones shoot to fame in the late 1970s
  • It became clear, after Belfast City Council quickly denied responsibility, that the Roads Service own the wall and so DSD was responsible for its removal
  • However, they followed the public outcry with a rather wishy-washy statement:

“We do not remove graffiti as a standalone issue. However, we will always remove graffiti, after consultation, as part of any scheme if it falls within a scheme area.”

The spokeswoman then added that the department may consider funding a replacement…

No doubt the DSD consulted someone before the white paint came out (common sense would have you assume). But we’re yet to know who. Or when. And they haven’t answered the call of so many on social media to answer the question: why the removal of this particular piece of street art when so many sectarian murals/tourist attractions remain?

In crisis communication, silence isn’t golden.

The main problem with the whole debacle isn’t actually the lack of public consultation, or the lack of transparency, or indeed the perceived insensitivity of the wall-whitewashing itself.

The problem is an age-old one, as highlighted in PR Week’s recent article. Government departments, normally with more communications and press officers than you can throw a stick at, don’t seem to know their audience to anticipate crises and therefore lack the respect afforded to PROs in the private or voluntary sectors. And worse still, even when they do anticipate it, even when they recognise that we (the citizens) are paying for their services, they appear not to feel obliged to communicate for the most basic of human interactions:

Help people to understand your position.