Thursday, 24 January 2013

How spin doctors (sometimes) save lives

On Tuesday, the coldest day of the winter so far, my central heating and hot water packed up.

Faced with daytime temperatures not creeping above zero Celsius dropping at night time as low as minus three I was braced for an extremely uncomfortable few days until I could get a repair sorted. The fact that I didn’t freeze is down to a few factors.

The obvious ones are that I’m fortunately able to afford a boiler maintenance and service policy. Thanks to those, I was able to get a plumber out at 9pm on a cold winter night on a snow covered hilly side-street in Pudsey to sort out the problem.

Less obviously though, I want to thank Gareth Wilce and the communications team he is part of at Leeds City Council. Yes, you heard me right. Communications professionals (often dismissed as ‘spin doctors’) aren’t the most well regarded professional group. The popular wisdom (which is never wrong, is it?) is that they are mostly slippery types who only have a distant acquaintance with the truth, and who make it their lives’ work to cynically manipulate public attitudes. I used to be one myself, and I can definitely say that I’ve never met anyone like that. Certainly in the public sector, the stereotype couldn’t get further from the reality.

Back to Gareth, who for the sake of transparency, I should make clear is a friend and former colleague. Throughout the course of last year, I could barely turn my head without getting bombarded with messages about Leeds City Council’s free home insulation offer for everyone in Leeds. Facebook, check; Twitter, check; local press, check; local radio, check. Rarely in my life have I been so comprehensively bombarded by messages urging me to take advantage of free home insulation before the winter hit.

The least I can do for Gareth after all this praise is use an unflattering image of him
These messages didn’t appear through magic and pixie dust. They appeared because of the hard work, skill and relentless persistence of people like Gareth and his colleagues, and the people at Yorkshire Energy Services, persuading journalists to keep mentioning it in the media, organising mailouts and using their social networks of friends and acquaintances to spread the message as widely as possible.

How does this relate to my own story? Well I was one of those people who took advantage of the offer. I got the insulation installed last Autumn (after some epic work with a friend to get the attic floorboards up to allow the insulation to be laid, but that’s another story) and have been grateful ever since. It’s made a noticeable difference to my fuel bills and to the general ability of my house to retain warmth. The thing that first struck me when I got home on Tuesday night was how (relatively) warm my house was after being left unheated for over 24 hours, and remembering how the house felt in previous years, I know for a fact that it was the insulation that made the difference.

According to the NHS, over 400 people over 65 years of age died last year through hypothermia . Insulation can make the difference between life and death, helping make fuel bills more affordable or eking out that extra bit of heat in an otherwise cold house. I have a few years to go before I fall into that age bracket, but I will one day, and there will certainly be vulnerable older people in Leeds who have taken up the offer this year through hearing about it in the paper, reading the mailshot, or being alerted to it by friends and relatives.

... and I mention this campaign, because I have had direct, personal and recent experience of it, but don't overlook all the other life saving campaigns organised by people working for the police, fire and health services.

So as far as I see it, spin doctors help save lives. Remember where you heard it first.

PS. If you want to know more about all the support available for Leeds residents who want to make their homes more energy efficient, check out

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