9 October 2023

Decision-Making and the Media: Key Lessons from the Nicola Bulley Case for Investigators

Decision-Making and Media: Key Lessons from the Nicola Bulley Case for Investigators
The independent review of the Nicola Bulley case, conducted by Lancashire Constabulary in early
2023, offers valuable insights into decision-making and media management in high-profile
investigations. The report runs into 138 pages, that may turn people away from reading it, however
there is some significant and valuable learning to be taken away that every investigator should now
consider. This post aims to distil key learnings for investigators, emphasising the interplay between
operational decision-making and media dynamics.

Exemplary Tactical Management and Professionalism
The review team’s thorough examination of the case, involving over 350 documents and insights
from over 70 key personnel, highlighted the exceptional tactical management and professionalism of
the operational aspects of the investigation. The search for Nicola was not only conducted to a high
standard but also leveraged national expertise, demonstrating best practices in investigative rigor
and resource deployment​​.

Challenges in Senior Leadership and Communications
However, the case also exposed significant challenges, particularly in senior leadership and
communications. Despite widespread media coverage, there was a notable underestimation of the
investigation’s profile and its impact on public confidence. This oversight led to several
complications, including the controversial release of Nicola’s personal information. The Constabulary
missed opportunities to minimize or avoid disclosing sensitive details about Nicola, raising questions
about media handling and information dissemination strategies​​.

The Impact of Media and social media
The Nicola Bulley case attracted unprecedented media and social media attention, exemplified by
over 500 media calls, 75,000 social media comments, and a global outpour of 6,500 news articles in
a single day. This level of interest underscores the evolving landscape where social media platforms
significantly influence public perception and narrative control​​.

Decision-Making and Leadership Under Media Pressure
The investigation’s management contrasted sharply with its communication strategy. While the
operational approach was highly professional and correctly classified as high risk, the leadership team’s

decision-making, particularly regarding media engagement, was less effective. This gap led to
unchecked speculation and a loss of control over the media narrative, highlighting the need for
improved decision-making and awareness at the leadership level, especially in handling media and
social media complexities​​.

So how could policing’s National Decision Model be applied?
Code of Ethics: Central to all decision-making, the Code of Ethics emphasizes accountability, fairness,
honesty, integrity, leadership, objectivity, openness, respect, and selflessness. In the Nicola Bulley
case, applying these principles would involve ensuring that all decisions respect the victim’s dignity

and the community’s trust, a critical aspect given the controversial release of personal information
and media handling issues​​​​.

Gathering Information and Intelligence: This step involves defining the situation and clarifying initial
information. In the Bulley case, accurate and comprehensive information collection was crucial,
given the complexity and the media’s interest in the case. It would involve not only the details of the
disappearance but also understanding the media landscape and potential public reaction​​​​.
Assessing Threat and Risk: Decision-makers should assess the situation for potential threats, risks,
and benefits. In this case, evaluating the risk of harm to public confidence due to media handling,
and the potential benefit of transparent communication could have guided more effective media

Considering Powers and Policy: This involves evaluating the applicability of various powers, policies,
and legislation. In this case consideration would have been given to the Data Protection Act and
whether the release of the personal information was lawful or not. It was found to be lawful, but just
because it was lawful it does not make it necessary to release the information.
Identifying Options and Contingencies: Decision-makers need to explore different decision-making
avenues, considering the immediacy of threats, available information, resources, and the potential
impact of actions. In the Bulley case, exploring various media engagement strategies and preparing
for different public reactions would have been essential​​.

Taking Action and Reviewing Outcomes: Implementing decisions and then reflecting on their
effectiveness is a crucial final step. In retrospect, reviewing the media engagement decisions and
their impact on public perception and trust could provide valuable lessons for future high-profile

The Nicola Bulley case, when analysed through the lens of the NDM, underscores the importance of
structured decision-making in investigative training. Each element of the NDM provides a framework
for addressing complex situations. As the landscape of high-profile investigations continues to
evolve, particularly in the era of social media, the ability to adapt and respond to these challenges
will be critical for the success and public confidence in future investigations. The importance of clear
communication strategies, both internally and with the public, cannot be overstated. These
strategies should be flexible enough to adapt to the rapidly changing dynamics of public and media
This case serves as a vital learning opportunity for investigators. It highlights the importance of
integrating effective decision-making with sophisticated media management strategies.