Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Negative Media and Haut de La Garenne

A recent report points to negative perceptions of Jersey by tourists.  The paper by Matthew Dugdale was entitled "The effect of negative media on destination branding: Altered perceptions in the case of Jersey and Haut de la Garenne"
According to CTV, and Jersey Isle News, "Award winning research proves that tourists still recall the incidents and their decisions to travel to Jersey were affected."
Quite what is meant by "prove" in a statistical context requires more explanation, and unfortunately the paper is not available in the public domain to see how the sampling was conducted, and the nature of questions asked.
"The research focused on the effect of negative media on destination branding and how the perceptions of visitors to Jersey altered following the incidents of child abuse at Haut de la Garenne. For many years Jersey Tourism has worked hard to promote Jersey as a safe, family orientated environment. This forms an intrinsic part of the Jersey brand in attracting families to the island, a key component in its tourism growth strategy. However in February 2008 reports regarding child abuse at the Haut de la Garenne children's home surfaced and tarnished this long standing reputation. The paper researched visitors' perceptions on Jersey as a tourist destination and how they have changed following the incident. The paper also looked at how the tourism board has adapted its branding strategy to overcome the negative perceptions and whether families still trust the island as a safe holiday destination."
Matthew commented: "Since a child I have visited Jersey many times and following the incidents I noticed a slowdown in tourism on the island. However the incidents occurred around the same time as the economic downtown and it was important for me to understand the real effect the child abuse claims had on tourism to the island and what views people held".
The survey took place of outbound passengers at Jersey Airport; a mixture of and business travelers,; these were interviewed in February over a three day period "to ascertain, unprompted, the recollection and association between Jersey and Haut de la Garenne that passengers held."
So the survey is restricted to looking at media perception of people who had been to Jersey as a destination, and whether this is a good representation of tourists in general is another matter. This strikes me as one weakness. People who come to Jersey are probably more attuned to stories about Jersey in the media than those who do not. The only way to check that would be a random sample of people in the UK as a control group, and the survey has not done that.
"Passengers were asked what they regarded as the most prominent news story over the past five years in Jersey. Of the 122 respondents 44.3% of people recalled Haut de la Garenne as their first choice. This was unprompted. This is interesting considering the amount of events that Jersey promotes each year; it is famous for its Tennerfest event in October, the Battle of Flowers show in summer and the Island Games, however it was apparent that tourists still had an association of the child abuse incident with the island."
That a bad news story is prominent in the mind doesn't really surprise. If I was asked about a number of destinations in the world, the news stories associated would almost invariable be bad news; it is a well established fact that most news is news of calamity, disaster, murder, abuse, violence, death etc, and only the occasional event like a Royal Wedding or a Martian vehicle landing manages to trump that kind of story.
ITN notoriously has a tradition of balancing the grimmer news stories by ending, often incongruously, on a funny and light news story. There is a web site full of the "and finally" stories - Ostriches join charity fun run, World's Largest lego model, KFC smuggled into Gaza etc. These are the froth on the surface of the news, stories easily forgotten. Will we really remember "Giant Spider terrorizes M3" in a week's time?
Negative stories often have more impact, and are retained for longer, and promotion of regular events, however good they are, is not likely to have the same impact. It is the incident which stands out, not the regularity. My own memories of the Battle of Flowers is not of the many successful times that the entrance involved hire cars with big letters J,E,R,S,E,Y on their roofs held by swimsuit dressed young women, but of the time when one car braked a bit suddenly, and one woman tumbled onto the roof of the car.  I also remember the petals from heaven not opening, and going through the roof of a house. Small incidents, but they stand out. Larger disasters also stand out. What instant associations do you have with, for instance, Tiananmen Square, Hungerford, King's Cross, Three Mile Island, Lockerbie, Dallas, New Orleans, Ruanda, Chenobyl?
As the "Handbook on Tourism Destinations Branding" by the World Tourism Organization and the European Travel Commission notes:
"A problem often faced by countries in our security-obsessed age is knowing how to deal with a negative
national reputation. The problem is that stories about war, terrorism, poverty, disease, corruption, crime
and violence - whether entirely justified or not - tend to spread very rapidly, to be instantly believed,
and to last for a very long time, playing havoc with a country's tourism promotion efforts. Unfortunately, negative or shocking stories are very often more interesting than good or positive or pleasant stories."
The survey on Haut de La Garenne showed that 93% recalled the incidents surrounding Haut de la Garenne, and 42% said their decision to travel to Jersey had been effected immediately following the exposure of abuse and stories at Haut de la Garenne. It would be interesting to know where their main source of information was. Was it by blogs, or was it mainstream media? Did the survey ask those questions?
There were some pretty good reports by some newspapers at the time, and by the BBC (which accurately quoted Lenny Harper  which focused on the abuse which did take place at Haut de La Garenne; there were also some rather lurid and highly exaggerated ones - the Sun, and the now defunct News of the World being notable exemplars. The Sun said "Three said bodies were buried there - and on Saturday a teenager's skull was found beneath a corridor." And there were also the blogs of the time, some such as "Moving Finger" and "A Holiday in the Sun" now defunct, and the new blogs of today.  What we don't know is if the tourists read the Times or the Sun, the Guardian or the News of the World. Perceptions may differ significantly depending on the source.
My suspicions are that the blogs only have achieved prominence when reported in mainstream media, as that gives them a wider audience; the online audience for news stories, despite numbers by blog reporting mechanisms are not really as great. This can also be seen in the fact that blog popularity rarely turns into votes at election time.
There is also a greater degree of receptivity by the audience of mainstream media such as newspapers, although (as Private Eye demonstrates repeatedly) that does not always mean they are accurate. They follow the story to sell the paper, and the 2008 press conference by Mick Gradwell gained considerable notoriety in the short term, and as a result, two contradictory narratives often appear in the press, even though a serious examination would highlight the defects in Mr Gradwell's account. (see
This brings us, appropriately, to the reasons given in the survey for negative impact:
"Some of their reasons included the Tourism Association and the Jersey States Government giving misleading facts regarding the level of abuse. Others mentioned the altered perception of Jersey now being unsafe; the incidents gave Jersey a bad image and a bad reputation. Quite interestingly many spoke of the very bad handling by the Jersey States in handling the incidents."
I am not aware of Jersey Tourism giving out misleading facts, but there can be little doubt that there was extremely bad handling by the Jersey Government. The Newsnight debacle in which Frank Walker said ""You're trying to shaft Jersey, internationally" to Stuart Syvret when he believed he was off air, was pretty appalling for a Chief Minister to use, and the attempt to justify the use of those words only made matters worse. Yes, they were a redacted presentation of all that Frank Walker said, but there is no denying those words were said, and an inability to understand the need for apology only shows how bad the handling was. It was the Frank Walker equivalent of Gordon Brown's unguarded comments in an open microphone, and at least Gordon Brown realized the damage that had done.
Following that, a bargain basement press confidence at St Martin's Public Hall only served to demonstrate even more inept handling, especially as it was obviously designed to exclude Stuart Syvret and present a press statement without questions and answers. And the way in which the next Chief Minister, Terry Le Sueur tried to renege on a promise for a formal inquiry, and stalled on publication of the Napier report was just as inept. So there are certainly many public occasions in which the handling of Haut de La Garenne was not done well, and this bears out the survey results.
The survey report concludes by saying that Haut de La Garenne was no longer as immediate in effect over deciding to come to Jersey:
"Of the original 42% who claimed that that their decision to travel had been affected 28% of this group said that their decision changed over time and they started to travel to Jersey again. However it is quite worrying that 14% of this number (all leisure travelers) still associate negative perceptions with Jersey and actively restrict their travel. A large number stated that neither the Tourism Association or States Government have left a large number of questions unanswered and have offered no solutions. Many respondents spoke of the poor effort made by the relevant authorities to 'clean up' after the incident and change the direction in the branding of Jersey to effectively overcome the impact of the Haut de la Garenne incidents."
There are some good guidelines in the aforementioned "Handbook on Tourism Destinations Branding", which perhaps Jersey should consider carefully:
"Tourist boards can not and should not ignore negative national reputation. It is essential that any areas of negative reputation are fully researched and fully understood before they are allowed to influence a country's marketing plans: this may sound like an obvious point, but it is surprising how many countries and their tourist boards will react to what they believe is a negative perception without first establishing the nature, the extent and the causes of that reputation in a rigorous and robust way."
"Dealing with negative reputation is a matter of treading a careful line between tacitly acknowledging the problems (which if overdone can raise the profile of those problems to people who weren't worried about them, or even introduce them to people who didn't know about them), and appearing to ignore or even lie about them."
It is a fine line, and one which doesn't appear to be properly in place at the moment. Acknowledging the seamier side of Jersey's past is necessary, and that is also why it is important both for the sake of justice and for tourism that the forthcoming inquiry is conducted properly, and honestly. To try and fix reputation by fudging matters is not the way to go; honestly, and a real desire to look at the history of Haut de la Garenne honestly and thoroughly is surely the way forward. Speeches which have prioritized reputation over the victims of Haut de La Garenne (and appeared to sideline the latter) actually did more damage.
If I may present an analogy - branding may overcome reputational damage in the short term, but if it is not based on honest foundations, it is like the branding which persuades the consumer to try a product at the supermarket for the first time. It may well succeed, but if the product does not live up to its expectations, a repeat sale is unlikely, and word of mouth may dissuade other consumers. Reputation should be a side effect of honesty, not a second-rate substitute.

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