Last summer, one of our foster cases was splashed across The Times’ front page for three consecutive days.
By the fourth day, the story had been turned on its head and the newspaper was defending itself in the national press, and on programmes including Newsnight and Today.
In May, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) ruled that coverage was distorted and The Times subsequently published a front page apology.
So how did we get to this point, largely against all the odds?
This all started last August with the first front page article, its headline being ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’.
The piece contended that as the child was of Christian faith it was wrong to place her with a Muslim foster carer. It also suggested that the foster carers were providing a poor level of care – for example not speaking English in the home, forcing the child to learn Arabic, and forbidding her from eating bacon – and that the council was preventing the child from going into the care of her grandmother.
From the start we had serious concerns about the validity of the allegations. However, we could not provide any balance because local authorities are bound by legal restrictions which prevent giving details of cases.
Fostering experts such as government adviser Sir Martin Narey and Chief Executive of The Adolescent and Children's Trust Andy Elvin agreed the story did not ring true. For starters, it is a prerequisite for foster carers to speak English.
They also argued that although faith is a very important consideration when making a placement, ultimately a warm and loving home is the most important factor.
Once the story was published, dozens of other media outlets copied it. Before long our complaints team had received 50 abusive phone calls, and 40 of our foster carers had spoken to us about their distress.
However the landscape changed on the day the second story appeared when the family court judge took the unusual decision to publish the court order.
It gave facts that we could not provide, including that the child’s grandmother was of Muslim background and living abroad; that the court-appointed guardian had found the foster carers to be providing a good level of care; and that it was in fact Tower Hamlets Council that had applied for the child to be moved to the grandmother, but had to make checks on her suitability, which included hiring a translator.
As a result, much of the general media coverage changed.
Despite all of these facts being made public, The Times chose to run a third consecutive front page piece, with the headline ‘Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home’.
There was now evidence in the public domain that the story was misleading.
In October, a council investigation – ordered to be published by the family court – found all the allegations to be unsubstantiated.
Around the same time, we submitted a complaint to IPSO for the third of The Times’ articles under the grounds of accuracy. We felt it was worth doing as we had a strong case and the reputation of our foster carers to defend.
Photos of children in care
We also submitted a separate complaint for the use of a picture of the child and her foster carer taken from behind. We felt they could be clearly identified in our community as a result. The family court judge had also expressed concern at the picture’s publication.
The complaints process is long and involves building a case and responding to the defences of newspapers concerned.
IPSO upheld our complaint on the grounds of accuracy and found The Times article to be a distortion. However, our complaint about the photograph did not even make it to consideration by the panel.
Why? Apparently IPSO rules say the complainant has to be the primary carer at the time of its panel ruling.
So despite the child being in our care when the picture was published, we were disqualified from our complaint being heard once the child was moved out of foster care.
But foster care is by its very nature temporary, so it is difficult to see how a complaint could be followed through.
So what are the lessons for communications professionals from this case? Here are five things to consider:
1. Become chief investigator
When a crisis happens, you need to become chief investigator yourself. Understand the facts as soon as possible. Ask difficult questions, read the evidence and do not wear rose-tinted specs. Whether your organisation did the right thing will significantly influence your approach to crisis management communications.
2. Create your side of the story - quickly
Use your research to create a true story about what happened. Use evidence to point out inaccuracies and counteract criticism and, if possible, bring in experts to endorse your position. Create key messages.
3. Engage with journalists early
There is nothing worse than radio silence, even if you are still researching the facts. Tell journalists you are looking into the issues and explain the limitations you are under, such as reporting restrictions. Keep in contact. They are interested in follow-up stories.
4. Be ready for opportunities
Watch for opportunities as the landscape changes andseize them quickly. In this case, the decision by the family court judge to publish its order was a complete game changer and meant we could go on the offensive in telling the true story, using the network of contacts we had already made.
5. Do you really want to complain to IPSO?
Only complain to IPSO if you think you will win and you are willing to dedicate a lot of time to it. The complaints process is convoluted and the majority of complaints do not even make it to its decision panel, let alone being upheld.
We spent over 50 hours on the complaint process. Complaints have to be precise in explaining why the publication broke specific rules in the Editor’s Code and provide evidence to support it.
Even if you think you might win, you have to weigh up the opportunity cost on not doing other pieces of work.
Andreas Christophorou is Divisional Director, Communications at London Borough of Tower Hamlets