Send in the Clowns

Another day, another PR gaffe from Number 10 and its communications machine.

It might only be his first day in the job but the Prime Minister’s new director of communications, Guto Harri, has already made the UK national headlines for saying that Boris Johnson is “not a complete clown”.

Describing a meeting he had with Johnson last week, Harri told Welsh-language news website, Golwg.360, that the Prime Minster initiated a rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, that there was “a lot of laughing” and “a serious conversation about how we get the government back on track and how we move forward”.

If Harri was trying to change perceptions of his boss from a party-loving clown – whether in the sense of a jester or a fool, or both – to a competent leader capable of serious thought and committed to delivering his agenda for the country, then it was an interesting approach, to say the least.

PR Perspective

One of the most basic rules of PR is, don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to see in print – and that includes repeating inflammatory or damaging words, even if used in a negative context. As in Harri’s case, those words often become the headline and have the opposite effect to that intended.

Furthermore, if you’re going to cite examples, make sure they’re consistent with your overall message. The image of the Prime Minister singing a seventies disco classic with his new communications chief simply reinforces those perceptions of buffoonery. (Similarly, was eulogising Peppa Pig World in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry – as Johnson did last year – really going to burnish his credentials as someone serious about business?)

In another departure from PR best practice, Harri was repeating a private conversation he had with the Prime Minister, which he must have realised would be picked up by the mainstream UK media. Johnson’s official spokesperson declined to comment, saying he “would not get into private conversations”.    

And in telling the story, Harri has become the story – something which PR professionals usually go to great lengths to avoid. Their job should be to develop communications strategy, shape the messages and advise on their delivery from behind the scenes, rather than taking centre stage.  

Reactions from the Prime Minister’s opponents

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister’s opponents have leapt on the comments, with Labour calling out the “clown show nonsense” and Nicola Sturgeon branding them “offensive” in the current circumstances.

Time will tell whether Harri and the rest of the new Number 10 team of “grown-ups” can help to reset the balance, restore trust in the government and ensure that the Prime Minister does indeed survive. There is no doubt that the task is immense – but it is certainly providing plenty of fodder for PR case studies.

Sarah Peters, 08/02/2022

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

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Dominic Cummings: The Source of Boris’s Problems

Dominic Cummings has been hell-bent on staying in the public’s eye through his continuing campaign to pick apart Boris Johnson’s political career, slice by slice. However, should the mainstream media be giving such primetime limelight to accusations from a man who holds such a personal vendetta against the PM that any statement he makes is smeared in bitterness? 

Dominic Cummings has been drip-feeding his blogged claims to the nation’s journalists ever since he left No. 10, slamming the brakes and, knowingly through the media as a proxy, halting the government and the country from moving forward towards some sense of normality. Whilst holding the government and the prime minister to account is an honourable necessity of any functioning modern society, it does feel like there is a danger of slipping into the pedantic and petty. The public is left with contemplating the difference between a party and a gathering, which all feels rather paltry in comparison to the mounting possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine looming on the eastern horizon. 

Of course, the wider question emerging is Boris’ integrity and whether he lied to Parliament – which is indeed significant stuff. But are we really going to let Cummings derail the current Government, if not now then later, such is his determination to dethrone and cause reputational damage to Boris Johnson, not to mention Carrie Symonds? What would that do to Cummings cause celebre – the Brexit project?

What are the lessons to be learned?

That leaders and high-profile individuals have enemies and vulnerabilities the media love to exploit. The old adage keep your friends close and enemies closer springs to mind. That relationship fall-outs between leaders and their advisers/co-workers can become highly distracting, circus-like, and sometimes so toxic that they overshadow the main act, to mutually devastating effect.  The public interest is only maintained for a limited time. Then the desire to get rid of all protagonists is overwhelming, meaning neither side prevails. 

That the media can be a very powerful estate. Their agenda influences public opinion, customer behaviour and regularly makes or breaks careers.

We’ll soon see if wounded Boris manages to limp on next week. Meantime we can’t help thinking that his choice of co-workers is another failing to which we should have been wiser, and whether Dominic should have been made to sign an enforceable NDA. That said, employment lawyers remind us no agreement would prevent the reporting of criminal allegations. Dominic might not be so easily put back in his bottle.  Grab the popcorn once more.

Declan Flahive, 28/01/2021

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

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The Power of An Apologetic Truth

Few among us could genuinely deny having made errors of judgment, whether inadvertently or otherwise. To err is human, as we are told. But so often these days otherwise forgivable missteps by public individuals captured in the omnipresent lens of social media are made infinitely worse by their first reaction to exposure of the initial wrongdoing. Molehills become mountains, challenges crises from which it can be truly hard to recover, if not already fatal to both career and reputation.

It strikes Bell Yard Towers that 2022 has begun with a flurry of high profile misconduct that might so easily have been prevented had the protagonist made better decisions in the wake of their original misdemeanour. The Prime Minister is obviously a case in point. Why obfuscate when asked the seemingly simplest of questions – “did you attend a party during lockdown?” It was surely inevitable that photographic evidence would emerge, let alone credible testimony by others, given the numbers of people also in attendance on each occasion and the politics involved. A swift admission, recognition of wrongdoing, reflection and public apology would have allowed many voters to put the issue to bed. Sadly, decisions taken once the first party was exposed have led us all down a rather bumpy garden path.

Sporting supremo, Novak Djokovic would have known that tennis aficionados, let alone casual observers, were well aware of his stated aversion to inoculations, his desire to determine what he puts into his body let alone his refusal to confirm publicly his unvaccinated status.  So when the Australian Open announced its all-player vaccination requirement all eyes were on Novak to see if he’d be withdrawing or whether a controversial route would be found for him to compete. As it was, the late confirmation of his medical exemption came as little surprise. Equally predictable was the swift public scepticism as to its validity. But the real astonishment was his tone-deaf social media posts proudly confirming his voyage to the southern hemisphere – waving his immunity in the face of a pandemic-hardened local population. This red rag to the bull that is Prime Minister Morrison, someone fiercely in election-campaigning mode, was unlikely to end well. But even then there remained the opportunity to recover his pride and reputation by returning to Monte Carlo acknowledging the errors made.  Sadly, he double faulted.

Prince Andrew’s decision to front public disquiet with a sit-down interview with one of the country’s most high-profile and able journalists was, perhaps predictably, a disastrous move, not least because of the implausible ‘evidence’ he gave which he believed would enable him to disprove the serious allegations he faces. Were you the complainant, you might well consider this decision to ‘tell-all’ a deeply provocative act that might fuel the determination to have your day in court rather than consent to a quick and quiet pay-off. The failure to show empathy for the victims or offer any apology for his relationship with Epstein compounded the situation. Sadly it has been left to the Royal Family to act decisively.

The common theme throughout these errors of judgment is a lack of awareness of the right thing to do from the outset: tell the truth, acknowledge the perception of past acts and say sorry. In other words, own the difficulty. In some of these cases, the sting may not have been fully eased by these three seemingly obvious steps, but they may have gone a good way towards pacifying an increasingly disillusioned audience. Of note in at least two, if not all three of these cases, public opinion swayed wildly as bit-by-bit more facts have emerged. But reputations are rarely enhanced by the drip feed of titbits that give oxygen to the controversy yet raise more questions than answers. 

In our line of work we surprisingly still see circumstances in which an early apology and recognition of the hurt or difficulty caused could have prevented the descent into contested and costly litigation. The power of an apology to take the wind out of the sails of even the most ardent opponent remains widely underappreciated. An apology is not necessarily an admission of liability, rather an expression of empathy that, provided sincerely expressed, can be a route to forgiveness and mutual understanding.  

People in the public eye could certainly benefit by taking counsel from diverse and objective advisers prepared to speak truth to power, telling it as it is. 

By Melanie Riley, 17th January 2022

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

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