Bright Tribe Trust in Stockport and Cornwall-based Adventure Learning Academy Trust are two sister state education providers that last year were at the centre of a media storm. Parents of students at their 11 schools were furious at the quality of education their children received, while Panorama broadcast an expose about the misuse of government funds. It followed two years of negative coverage across national, trade and local media, in which Bright Tribe was held up as an example of what was wrong with the academies programme by its critics.
In Autumn 2018, PLMR was engaged by the trust’s’ new executive leadership team, who had been appointed by the Department of Education to repair the damage.
PLMR’s role was clear. It had to engage with all stakeholders - parents, media, local politicians - in order to shift the narrative to protect the reputations of the Department of Education, the academies programme and the new leaders. It would also oversee the transfer of the schools to new academies in a project described by politicians as ‘the most complex school rebrokering process ever’.
The strategy was simple. It was not to defend the previous failings. PLMR had to emphasise how the new leaders were committed to addressing the issues as quickly as possible, and to demonstrate that the disreputable trusts were not typical of the academies programme. Every piece of correspondence, including Freedom of Information requests, irrespective of the sender, was responded to swiftly and openly. This ran into dozens every week. Where possible, requests for meetings were accepted, giving complainants the opportunity to air their views and for the new leadership team to explain their remedial actions.
Every media request was also met. National and trade education correspondents, where PLMR had strong pre-existing relationships, were briefed on the change in culture and approach, as well as the integrity of the new leadership. This led to more supportive coverage. The agency team also worked to build up relationships with local journalists to ensure their coverage reflected the new approach.
PLMR also wrote to all key stakeholders every time there was a key development. In doing so, they emphasised transparency and progress. And when the trusts’ interim chief executive Angela Barry was called to give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, the team fully briefed and supported her. Barry’s message that the new leadership team was investigating failings by previous leaders, not defending them, was picked up in media coverage.
Within eight weeks, media coverage was much more positive, while Labour politicians and parents stated that they were ‘reassured’ by the progress. By spring 2019, all 11 schools had been successfully rebrokered to academy trusts.
Barry described PLMR’s support as ‘second to none’, adding: ‘They ensured all communications were handled in such a way that even bad news was presented in a positive light and prevented reputational damage.’
The judges agreed. They found that PLMR had handled what was a ‘hugely sensitive and emotional’ situation in an ‘open and honest manner’, adding: ‘Stakeholder management is quite difficult, but they managed a wide range in a strategic manner, with the appropriate tone and nuances. This was a strong outcome.’