Press officer Petrie on Pointless

photo-2petCAMDEN Council staff of a certain vintage will have been glued to their televisions yesterday afternoon as a former colleague attempted to win the jackpot on the BBC quiz Pointless.

David Petrie, once a press officer at the Town Hall, and his wife went within one point of scooping the big money. They had been asked to give the obscurest answer to the question: Name a footballer who has scored five or more goals in World Cup finals. You win if nobody among the 100 people surveyed by the quiz beforehand gives the same correct answer. He said Just Fontaine, but, agonisingly, one know-it-all had given the same answer and the hooter went off. In a moment, the round-the-world trip was gone and the couple left only with a paperweight trophy.

In truth, it’s been a long time since David was answering our calls at the council. But he clearly hasn’t forgotten the experience of dealing with the CNJ. For when not quizzing on the telly, he updates his own blog and earlier this year, wrote: “I remember that when I was working in the press office at Camden Council a decade or more ago our main local paper, the Camden New Journal, went through a phase of always introducing any statement which we gave them with the phrase ‘a Council press representative said’. I was never entirely sure quite what the point was that they were trying to make and the practice was quietly dropped after a few months.”  

As pointless as David may have found it, the paper used, and sometimes still uses, ‘council press official’ when quoting the Town Hall’s communications officers so readers know exactly where the responsive quotes came from. ‘A council spokesman’, although accepted across the media and back in operation at the CNJ, is pretty naff, because it creates this nameless, faceless figure who somehow knows everything about the council’s work. Whatever the query, the magic council spokesman is on hand to respond in place of someone else. In an ideal world, local authorities would get their department bosses, senior accountable people, to put their names to statements, maybe even talk to the press themselves – it’s a skill that comes with the pay bracket.

By the end of his post, David seems to agree, falling over the point of the CNJ’s policy in the rest of his text: “For press officers working in the public sector this does raise the ongoing issue of who quotes should be attributed to. In my experience most local authorities now have a policy of responding to media inquiries with a quote in the name of a Councillor, usually the relevant portfolio holder. One benefit of this is that it makes the response seem less impersonal if it is coming from a named individual rather than from a faceless organisation. It is also important, particularly when dealing with contentious issues, that a senior figure is named and quoted as it shows that they are taking ownership of the issue. In a time of crisis the public, and the organisation’s own staff, will gain more reassurance from an actual person then they will from a spokesperson.”


2 Comments on Press officer Petrie on Pointless

  1. Kim Janssen // December 2, 2014 at 3:53 pm //

    Radical thought: attribute the quote, by name, to the person who actually said it, regardless of whether or not they’re a spokesman. That might encourage more sensible answers.

  2. Normal operating procedure at Islington Council: the relevant Executive (“Cabinet”)member will be attributed. Sometimes it’s a committee chair if a plannign decision or similar. Quite a lot of the time that’s unavoidable because the Councillor actually talks straight to the journalist. Very occassionally, it’ll be a “spokesperson” (e.g. an Exec member is in a meeting and the deadline requirement is immediate) and then it’s apsokesperson because it is, after all, the Council corporately that’s making the statement.

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