This weekend’s UK media frenzy over the announcement that security contractor G4S is unable to fulfil all its commitment to safeguard the Olympics – now less than two weeks away – highlights PR blunders as well as opportunities.
And there’s a double lesson for any company embarking on high-profile contacts with government or other public sector organisations:
For the media the G4S disclosure was a godsend. Bored with the flood of weather stories, ongoing economic gloom and not much else to excite in the run-up to London 2012, suddenly they had a lead with multiple angles, political overtones and ‘national heroes’ to the rescue.
The TV apology by G4S CEO Nick Buckles was unconvincing and did little to explain what had gone wrong. Even the facts were difficult to glean from his response to questions. He was certainly buckling!
For the CEO of an organisation as big as G4S to come across so feebly in such serious circumstances suggests he has a sad lack of media training and crisis handling skills – two inexcusable PR failures.
He faces an even more torrid time in the coming weeks as media and politicians demand answers. If his PR team hasn’t already put ‘crisis’ at the top of their agenda, they should consider themselves on borrowed time.
The facts, it appears, were that G4S was originally contracted to provide 2,000 trained security personnel to secure Olympic venues – but late last year the government increased the security requirement to 10,000. While G4S has made some progress towards meeting the additional numbers, delays in recruitment, training and accreditation mean that it is falling far short of the target. And this is despite high national unemployment figures – which include many former police and military personnel.
With the Home Office and Locog (the London Olympics committee) sitting on its back all the time, how on earth did G4S keep the problem hidden for so long? Bad management on one, two or three sides? More bad PR all round!
The solution has been to bring in the troops. And that’s a great PR opportunity.
Already the RAF is on standby to deal with any unauthorised air traffic in the East London no-fly zone, the Navy has HMS Ocean providing a floating airbase on the Thames, and the Army has – controversially – installed rooftop missile platforms. Now, by providing troops to work alongside civilian security officers on gate control and other duties during the Olympics, the Army is able to use its personnel in a high-visibility ‘civil defence’ role. They are, after all, security professionals.
Whether regulars or territorials, soldiers deployed on Olympic service have a unique peacetime opportunity to interface directly with the public whose rights and freedoms they protect – and to demonstrate to foreign athletes and visitors that a military presence is not necessarily a symbol of political oppression.
I suspect that many of the personnel involved – many with sometimes bitter experience of service in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and the Falklands – will welcome the chance to do something useful on home soil other than just training, administrative and ceremonial duties.
And I think the Games-going public will actually have greater peace of mind with our forces supplementing the crash-trained G4S contingent. Now that’s really good PR!
David Goddin was born in the UK and educated in South Africa. He began his career on daily newspapers and trade journals, before moving into public relations consulting. He produced award-winning writing and became an Accredited PR Practitioner, the highest qualification of the Public Relations Institute of South Africa. Since his return to the UK 17 years ago he has also contributed to a number of highly successful PR and marketing communications campaigns for major national and multinational clients. He is currently also President of the Haslemere & District Chamber of Trade & Commerce.