NO sooner had Ruth MacLeod taken up her new role as corporate communications manager at Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service, but, in July, firefighter Ewan Williamson was killed fighting a pub fire in Edinburgh as his colleagues battled to save residents trapped in a block of flats above.
It involved media management of one of the biggest stories of the year, Williamson being the first firefighter in the history of Lothian and Borders to die fighting a fire.
Previously, MacLeod and Noel Miller were the highly-respected core of the media office at Lothian and Borders Police.
1. When you were at Lothian and Borders Police, some of the media referred to you, affectionately, as ‘Ruth The Truth’. What’s behind that?
I don’t know who first coined the moniker, but it stuck. I think it came about because journalists found that I was always very honest in my dealings with them. This occasionally led to some full and frank discussions if I felt they had played something wrong but we always enjoyed the debate. Being truthful didn’t mean telling them everything, but if I couldn’t answer their questions I told them why not.
Usually, it was for operational or legal reasons. Just taking the time to explain that made a real difference to the relationship I had with the media. It certainly beat the ‘no comment’ approach or, worse, being untruthful. The truth always comes out in the end, which is why I was always careful about what I said. Journalists have very long memories and, if they find out that they have been misled, the trust has gone forever.
2. What are the main differences between your media handling duties now and those when you were at Lothian and Borders Police?
Noel and I were usually in the office from 8am until 6pm, but a great deal of our work happened out-of-hours as policing, like the media, doesn’t run to ‘routine’ hours. My role at the Fire Service is communications manager, so I have a much broader remit, which includes the media but also the Service website, intranet, producing a monthly in-house magazine, FoI and Data Protection. Media is just part of the mix and the challenge is trying to ‘keep an eye’ on all aspects of organisational communication and do justice to all the different threads.
3. How long had you been with the media office at LBP and what were the most marked changes in practice over those years?
I was at the police for almost ten years and in that time the changes in how the police dealt with the media changed enormously, I would say for the better.
When I first started at the police, they were incredibly wary of journalists and many saw no need to have any kind of relationship with the media. Putting out appeals was fine but they didn’t like being asked about enquiries they were engaged in and often felt they shouldn’t need to explain their actions. “Tell them it’s sub judice”, was a popular phrase, even if, usually, it wasn’t. Now we are used to seeing regular police press conferences, some forces are using social media tools, like Facebook and Twitter, and cops are writing blogs that end up getting published.
Much has improved but the balance can be swayed very quickly if there isn’t a fundamental two-way, honest, relationship underpinning all these activities.
4. Describe those first few weeks at LBFRS, following the death of Williamson. How long had you been in post for?
I’d been in post for four days, Tuesday to Friday, and went off that weekend thinking the next week would be my first ‘proper’ week. In fact, I was back in on the Sunday and meeting my chief for the first time properly, other than a brief introduction, to prep him for a press conference that would be streamed live on News 24 and Sky. The police were in attendance that first day and I knew more of them than I did Fire personnel, which was a strange experience. I was lucky that I came from the background I did, which allowed me to go onto automatic pilot.
I knew what had to be done and that there was a lot of work ahead. I was fortunate that the Fire Service and my new team trusted me to get on with the job and direct them on how to deal with the media side of such a tragic event.
5. To what extent do the media need police and fire media offices more than they need the media?
I think there is a real balance in terms of need. Often, journalists can be quite scathing about PRs but they can make a difference when it comes to standing up a story or pointing out a flaw with a tale or a different way to make it work or take forward. As a PR, the media are important to me to get stories and information out to the public. But these stories also fill a space in a paper or webpage and that’s important for journalists who have less time than ever to get stories filed and on to the next issue.
6. How often are you on the phone to the media, per hour or day? Is it mostly check calls from hacks, to find out if there’s anything worth reporting?
At the Fire Service, the check calls mainly go to our Control Room which is a change for me. But this frees me up to do other work. I tend to speak to media on the more noteworthy incidents that require more handling or proactive stories that I want to pitch to them – it’s still a daily part of my job.
7. Before you left LBP, media officers were instructed to desist from going off-the-record. How did that change relationships and practice with the media?
Being told not to go off-the-record was just one element. We were also instructed not to speak to journalists from our mobile phones or out-of-hours. To my mind, it made doing the job impossible and I knew I could no longer provide the kind of service that the media had come to rely on. I felt so strongly about it I decided there and then that I couldn’t comply with these changes and within a month I had a new job at the Scottish Government. It was a terrible wrench to leave, I was also giving up job security to become a contractor but I felt it was worth it to maintain my integrity.
8. Anything good come from you leaving the police?
I was worried that, after ten years as a police PR, it might be all I could do. Fortunately, I learnt that my experience stood me in good stead for my new position. It was gratifying to know that, with good core skills, you can apply them to all kind of different roles with confidence. I went on to work at the Scottish Parliament and City of Edinburgh Council where I got the opportunity to work with Noel again, which was great.
9. Proudest moment?
I think I’m most proud of the media work I did on the case of murdered school girl, Jodi Jones. From the day Jodi was murdered to the conviction of her killer, almost two years later, I worked to support the police enquiry team and Jodi’s family through some of the most intense media scrutiny I have ever seen. Without doubt, the most challenging and demanding time of my whole career but also a period where I felt my skills made a real difference to individuals. It was a crime that shocked Scotland and it’s something I will never forget working on.
10. Most embarrassing or funny?
I try very hard to avoid embarrassing situations by being a bit of control freak. My funny moments would probably get other folk in trouble but, in spite of working on some very serious matters, there has always been time for fun and laughs – in fact, I think a bit of ‘black humour’ gets you through the difficult jobs. The fact that most of my best friends are journalists is because of sharing some excellent, funny moments.