Retaking the narrative on complaints
In the full version of his letter published this month, the author argues that the Society failed to counter effectively the misleading headline approach of the SLCC on launching its annual report
The Scottish solicitor is losing the public affairs narrative on complaints. I suggest this is evidenced by the media response to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission Annual Report for 2015-16. The narrative was that there was a “significant increase” in complaints. The Herald's headline was “Complaints about legal services on the increase”, and the Society's press release was entitled “SLCC annual report shows rise in complaints” – not exactly targeted at presenting an alternative view.
I previously wrote about “The art of communication in times of scandal”, commenting on the legal fallout of the Michelle Thomson scandal and giving my humble opinion, based on my nearly six years working part time in political communications, on how the Society could and should have better handled the scandal. The SLCC annual report was also a missed opportunity to retake the narrative, albeit a smaller one than the Michelle Thomson scandal but one nonetheless. Sadly for the Scottish solicitor it was missed.
The title of the Society's press release response illustrates the core problem. It ties in with the SLCC's narrative: complaints are up and solicitors need more regulation. Perhaps this is a result of the broad range of Society responsibilities which a communications officer is trying to meet? It is after all meant to regulate and represent the profession. Is there not an inherent contradiction at play? Can you robustly respond on behalf of the Scottish solicitor worried about the impact ineligible or unsuccessful complaints have on them professionally and personally while still being the protector of the rightly or wrongly aggrieved general public?
The content of the press release is, as in the Michelle Thomson ones, clunky. The paragraphs are lengthy, and while there are some important points, they are not made in a succinct manner. It is in the writer's opinion not content that will get printed in the Metro, so therefore the Scot riding public transport into work will not have the Society's view. It is also not the content for a journalist needing text which, unedited, makes for printable content. That really should be the test. For example, here is one paragraph:
“Although there has been a rise in the number of complaints received, there has actually been a slight drop in those deemed eligible by the SLCC over the last year. We will be looking closely at this year’s report to understand the reasons behind the complaints and work to ensure that we provide the right guidance and training for our members so that they can meet the high standards set by the Law Society and the needs of their clients.”
My suggestion: “Complaints will fluctuate year on year but this year the number of valid complaints are down.
“The over 11,000 Scottish solicitors the Society represents and regulates continue to deliver dedicated client care in tens of thousands of transactions every year without complaint.
“The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission would do better to remember this instead of leading on a misleading statistic.”
The misleading statistic is that complaints are up in 2015-16 from 1,009 in 2014-15 to 1,132. An apparent 12% rise in complaints is how the SLCC chose to spin this statistic. Sounds bad, does it not? Yet those are just the headline figures which show a rise of 123 complaints – a rise which does not merit the spin when you look at the detailed figures in the annual report.
When you drill down into the figures in the annual report, a different picture is reached. On p 23 the eligible complaints are actually reported as down by six. That is a decrease rather than a “significant increase”. On p 24, a pie graph summarises the “different eligibility outcomes for complaints made to us [the SLCC]”. Of those complaints, 61% have not necessarily been taken forward. Even taking out the 25% which are deemed premature as the practitioner has not been “given reasonable opportunity to deal with the complaint”, or the 11% “resolved before an eligibility decision was taken”, the statistics show that 25% of complaints – a quarter – are either ineligible, frivolous, vexatious or totally without merit, or not taken forward for other reasons.
This information should have been compiled in a Society summary of the annual report, available in the “notes to editors” section of a press release. Otherwise there is no alternative narrative to “significant increase” in complaints. Do not presume that a hard pressed journalist is going to read a 33 page report cover to cover. A press release entitled “A quarter of complaints invalid” would have struck a far more robust tone. What difference in perception would that have made from “Complaints about legal services on the rise”?
At the Law Awards of Scotland in November, the current editor of the Herald, which sponsored the event, noted the contribution Scottish solicitors make to the economy and their work in supporting business. In retaking the narrative, Scottish solicitors need such positive headlines in newspapers and social media if we are to slowly reshape the public perception of Scottish solicitors, yet the Society's “news release” section does not appear to cover such positives of the legal profession at all.
Michael Kusznir, trainee solicitor, Clarkston