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Two Devon organisations, two serious public relations crises, one winner, one loser.
Brixham’s Churston Ferrers Grammar was forced to close its doors after one of its pupils tested positive for coronavirus. Meanwhile, the county’s foremost professional sports club Exeter Chiefs rugby team saw the collapse of one of the team’s sponsors Flybe.
Now, typically, Devon is no hot bed of hard news. But coronavirus and the failure of Exeter-based Flybe were two rare ‘watercooler’ talking points in the region.
The school closed for a week, commissioned a deep clean of the school site and activated a plan for that deployed technology allowing students to be taught remotely. Students have since returned and those in self isolation are still able to attend lesson ‘virtually’.
The development attracted rare national news and inevitably the buzz of social media from concerned parents. But the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
What came across was an organisation that was decisive, professional, prepared, put the health of students first, but also minimised impact on pupils’ education. Although the media perception would not have been the school’s priority, what could have been a disaster was a PR triumph.
Contrast with Exeter Chiefs, a highly regarded institution in Devon, who turned away Flybe staff at the turnstiles for their game against Bath, despite them holding apparently valid tickets.
The airline had, earlier in the week collapsed and left 2,000 people out of work. So, the commercial arrangements between Exeter Chiefs and long-term sponsor Flybe were void. But did it really mean that newly unemployed staff should have a bad week worsened?
It’s understandable that an automated system might have triggered the rejection of the Flybe tickets. But could common sense not prevail when the affected staff queried the club reception? No was the answer.
To compound matters, after two days of silence and with ample time to reflect, the Chiefs Chairman Tony Rowe described the decision as “commercial” and complained that the club was “not a charity”. Unsurprisingly, it was poorly received on both mass media and social media channels.
Sports clubs are widely seen as symbols of the community and their success largely depends upon this image – they represent their areas and the people within it. It is difficult to assess the long-term reputational effect on both Churston Ferrers and Exeter Chiefs, but the lingering associations will be one that put the community first and one that put finance first.