‘No such thing as bad publicity’ – Larne Council CEO

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Larne Borough Council is hoping to “exploit the heightened awareness” of the town created by the controversial BBC documentary, ‘I Love Larne’.

The programme, part of BBC NI’s True North series, sparked a public backlash and was branded “misleading” by local residents and elected representatives alike.

And in an effort to counter what it perceives as a PR disaster, the local authority has now embarked on a campaign to promote a positive image of the town.

A special council meeting was held in Smiley Buildings – the majority of which was held behind closed doors. Councillor Roy Craig had even indicated that if the BBC was granted access to the meeting, he would leave.

The Press and members of the public were only permitted to enter for the last half-hour, to hear Mayor Martin Wilson read a prepared statement.

The Larne Times has seen a copy of minutes from the meeting, which shed some light on the council’s involvement with the programme.

As reported in last week’s Times, no representative of Larne Council had a preview of the film before it aired on BBC One NI.

The minutes state that chief executive Geraldine McGahey had seen “an excerpt of footage” back in 2013 to check for factual accuracies.

“It bore no resemblance to what was eventually broadcast,” the minutes added.

“She (Mrs McGahey) had requested that members be given a preview in January 2014. However the BBC did not like the footage and new material was filmed. There had been no further contact with her regarding a preview.”

Mrs McGahey also spoke of her disappointment with the programme and stressed she had “no control” over editorial content.

Members were also shown minutes from a council meeting which had taken place on March 25, 2013, when filmmaker Guy King had made a presentation to members regarding plans for the programme.

At this meeting, councillors had agreed to embrace what they considered to be “a wonderful opportunity encouraging a warts and all approach”.

But this “wonderful opportunity” ultimately backfired, with Councillor Michael Lynch pointing out: “Council’s involvement with the programme had been to grant permission to film in Council buildings, yet Council appeared to be taking the blame for the entire production.”

Referring to the minutes of March 25, 2013, Cllr Gerardine Mulvenna said that all members had believed the programme would promote Larne.

She added: “The silver lining to the situation was that people across the borough were united in their reaction.”

Mrs McGahey added: “The intentions sold to Council appeared to have been lost in editing.”

Alderman Roy Beggs said the council should record its “great disappointment, frustration and annoyance at the way it had been portrayed”.

He also enquired as to the possibility of the Council commissioning its own documentary on Larne.

The chief executive advised that the Council would need to source a broadcaster for the film. However, she felt there may be a story around the town’s reaction to the BBC programme.

Mrs McGahey also told members that a 75th anniversary booklet was to be produced focusing on the positive history of the borough.

She acknowledged the response to the documentary had resulted in a “widespread undermining of confidence” in the council within the local community.

The CEO added: “A specific action plan needs to be developed to address this. The form of this action plan must be about exploiting the opportunity of the heightened awareness of Larne that this publicity has created.

Mrs McGahey referred to “the old adage: there is no such thing as bad publicity”.

“It is what is done with it from here on in that is important.

“This furore has heightened interest not just in Larne, but specifically in relation to The Gobbins project,” Mrs McGahey concluded.

As reported in last week’s Times, the council resolved to review its PR protocols and to develop a strategy to promote a positive image of Larne.