I fear the normally astute John Swinney is out his depth on this one.
It’s a brave Government minister who puts his head above (blue) water and tells pupils, teachers and parents that the blue water coming out the taps in their school is nothing to worry about.
He’s failed to grasp that even an independent review won’t satisfy many of the individuals affected. And that’s due to the fact that just because something is assessed to be safe, doesn’t mean it is safe.
He should understand this, but I’ll explain.
If water is discoloured and someone tells you it’s safe, how would you know if it ever became unsafe?
If water’s blue, how will you know if it goes brown? Or yellow? Or green? The colour it’s supposed to be has already been masked. Worse still, it’s already been tested. So the problem with blue water, even when it’s been tested and proven to be safe, is that it encourages the consumption of discoloured water, and there may come a time when that’s not safe. And you’d never know.
Besides that, blue water clearly is not normal. I wouldn’t drink it no matter what you told me. And it’s very strange to see the Deputy First Minister, someone so senior in a government that claims to put young people at the very heart of almost every decision it makes, actually telling people that blue water is safe to drink.
You might also find it strange that two schools have been built on a former landfill site. Is that really putting children at the heart of decision making? Is that what pupils, parents and teachers would want?
The real problem here, as I see it, is the way this crisis is being dealt with.
It might not have felt like a crisis at the beginning to some of those involved, but it is. Blue water + children = crisis. It’s not going away. And that’s because, in fact, former toxic landfill site + new school buildings = crisis.
But the approach to managing these issues is often based around ‘what can we do to preserve the status quo?’. Far too often, crisis comms is defensive. It’s all about protection. Keep the building open, keep the operation running, keep that key individual in the job. Save the brand.
I take a different approach. I’d ask ‘how much do we need to change, in order to put things right?’. So rather than figuring out what I need to say or do to convince people blue water is safe, my priority would be looking at what I need to do to return it to its natural colour.
That might involve closing the school for a few days while I install a different supply, or literally digging deeper and recognising the real concern which is the fact that many of the people learning and working in those schools don’t like the fact they’re built on former toxic landfill sites. That’s actually the root of the problem.
My crisis comms plan would be simple. ‘The schools are closed because the water is blue. They’ll re-open when it’s back to its normal colour and when tests show it’s safe. We’ll organise alternative accommodation for the pupils and let you know the arrangements tomorrow.’ And I’d put some resource around the inevitable questions because people can’t bear to wait 24 hours while we organise a plan. All of this, by the way, should have been anticipated when the decision was taken to build schools on a former toxic landfill site.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with building schools on former toxic landfill sites (I’m not a scientist and if they say it’s safe then it probably is) but it’s a decision entirely out of keeping with everything the Scottish Government claims to be.
That’s what John Swinney needs to understand. That same government, ‘the most popular government in the world’; that puts a tax on fizzy drinks, makes sure you don’t drink too many smoothies and gives you 5 bins so you can separate out all the recycling and do your bit to save the planet, cannot possibly be the same government that’s building schools on former toxic landfill sites and telling kids that it’s OK to drink blue water.
These schools should close for the summer this afternoon and not re-open until the matter is completely solved. If that means moving the classrooms somewhere else and closing these buildings permanently then that’s what I’d be doing.
Dealing with a crisis properly means changing something. It doesn’t mean convincing people blue water is safe to drink.
What do you think the response would be if the Coca-Cola sold at Disney World went blue? Would they put Mickey Mouse up to convince you it was safe?