Media attention fears stopped 2013 Post Office Horizon investigation

Vennells told the inquiry that the 2013 investigation could have avoided a decade of miscarriages of justice

Paula Vennells, former Post Office CEO, decided against conducting a review into the Horizon IT scandal in 2013, fearing that it would make front-page news, the inquiry heard last Thursday (23 May).

Vennells suggested in 2013 that convictions going back 10 years could be investigated, to scrutinise their validity. More than 900 Post Office employees were convicted of theft and false accounting between 1999 and 2015 after data on Horizon, the accountancy software used by subpostmasters, flagged money as missing.

However, after advice from her media officer that such a review would make front page news and could “fuel the story and turn it into something bigger than it is”, Vennells dropped it, BBC News reported. At the inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal, on 23 May, Vennells conceded that this investigation might have avoided a "lost decade" in discovering miscarriages of justice.

Fiona McKee, founder of consultancy the HR Practice, explained that HR should work with communications teams to train employees about responding to media attention.

She told HR magazine: “While it’s not HR's primary responsibility to manage media scrutiny or attention, HR plays a crucial role in collaborating with PR, or the team responsible for external communications. 

“HR can support people by training employees on how to handle media enquiries, and by directing enquiries to the correct person. 

“In addition, HR can collaborate with the PR team to create a comprehensive media policy and ensure that all employees understand their roles and responsibilities in adhering to this policy.”

Read more: HR’s role when an employee faces scrutiny on social media

HR should have its own strategy in place for responding to media enquiries, particularly in response to industrial action and employment tribunals, McKee added.

She commented: “HR is more likely to come under scrutiny when media attention involves negative employee relations issues, such as strike actions or claims made against the company in an employment tribunal. 

“In these situations, it’s essential for HR to have worked closely with PR to develop a strategic plan to address media enquiries and manage the company's response appropriately. 

“This collaboration ensures that the company presents a unified stance in the face of public scrutiny.”

HR should also safeguard employees’ wellbeing amid media scrutiny, said Amrit Sandhar, founder of business consultancy &Evolve.

Read more: Eight reasons why you should support employees’ mental health

Speaking to HR magazine, Sandhar said: “First and foremost, HR needs to ensure that organisations uphold their duty of care to employees. 

“No matter what has happened and who may be at fault, everyone at the centre of any media attention should be supported. 

“Knowing how employees are feeling will be critical. Having daily check ins, and allowing them to talk about how they are feeling, can help minimise some of the emotions.”

HR should focus wellbeing support on the employees who are under media scrutiny, Sandhar added.

He continued: “Providing support and counselling to the individuals under such attention will provide them with an avenue to release their emotions while at the same time allowing teams to understand that the workplace is somewhere everyone is afforded dignity at work. 

“Where possible, providing employees under scrutiny with the ability to work from home may help lessen the emotional impact, but it will be important to regularly stay in contact and provide support remotely where possible.”