Public relations

Relations with the media

The relations between a public inquiry and the media are of fundamental importance. Public concerns are unlikely to be allayed unless the public knows that they are being addressed and members of the public are most likely to find out about the workings of a public inquiry by reading about it in their newspaper or seeing it on television. For that reason most public inquiries retain the services of a press officer or public relations consultant. Their task is to let the Press know what is happening and to provide members of the media with all reasonable facilities for proper reporting. That may involve giving schedules of witnesses, with brief descriptions of their role and the dates on which they are to give evidence. The Press may wish to film or photograph the chamber and the Panel, for library purposes. Press releases and explanatory statements should be issued whenever a particularly newsworthy event occurs in the course of the public inquiry.

Communications strategy

Branding and style

The public inquiry will doubtless have contact with a publicly funded body and is unlikely to need or to justify expensively designed logos and stationary. However a common font style, size, page layout and header gives a recognisable, professional impression.

House Style

All communications issued should have a coherent written style and agreement as to spellings, use of place names, abbreviations and titles.

It may be helpful to seek local knowledge. At an early stage, it was supportively pointed out to the Robert Hamill Inquiry team that Reserve Constable should only be shortened to Res Con or R/Con rather than RC, to which Roman Catholic is also abbreviated.

While there will doubtless be a great deal of names specific to the public inquiry team’s work, a suggested starting point is the style guides given to the staff at the Economist  and the Guardian.

Website

The public inquiry’s website is likely to be the main point of contact with the press and public.

The public inquiry team may wish to use it for press releases, protocols and advice for witnesses as well as the transcripts and evidential documents.

Examples of the websites of various public inquiries can be found by following through their links.

Publishing evidence

In furtherance of the aim of allaying public concern a public inquiry is likely to publish transcripts of evidence given and to make available copies of documents which have been referred to in the course of the hearings. The most convenient way of doing so is to maintain a website and to upload such documents as they arise. It is then convenient for the Press to contain links to the website in news articles.

In the Hutton Inquiry, Lord Hutton ruled that material submitted by the parties during the second phase of the Inquiry was not to be published on this website, unless it was referred to by counsel in the course of the hearings. Lord Hutton took the view that any material which was not deemed important enough to be used by any of the counsel during the second phase is not evidence and thus had no part in his considerations and so was not taken into account when writing his report.

There is also a minimum requirement for public inquiries being held under the Inquiries Act 2005, see disclosure obligations of a public inquiry.

Monitoring

Frequently Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are instrumental in the call for a public inquiry. While the role of the NGO may be most visible when the calls for action are being made, there may be an important continuing function that accompanies the running of the inquiry, namely monitoring it to ensure that the terms of reference are being followed and that they are adequate to address the public concern. Furthermore international bodies monitoring, for example, the treaty commitments of states have shown interest in the workings of public inquiries, particularly those re-establishing the rule of law. It may be helpful to ensure that any NGO involved in the call for a public inquiry is given facilities to attend as an observer, be given materials and to have the opportunity to discuss progress with the inquiry team.