The Sound of Radio Silence: Liz Truss Hits the Local Airwaves

If Liz Truss and her PR advisers thought that local radio would give her a much easier ride than national news programmes, then they were sorely mistaken. 

Breaking her silence after four days of turmoil in the financial markets prompted by Friday’s mini-Budget (which saw the IMF call on the government to reverse its tax-cutting plans, the Bank of England make an emergency intervention to prevent a run on pension funds, interest rates shoot up, mortgage deals withdrawn, and sterling collapse to record lows), Truss gave her first media interviews to eight BBC radio stations across the country yesterday morning. 

Allocated just five minutes each to grill the Prime Minister, and determined to reflect the concerns, fears and fury felt by their listeners, the presenters wasted no time in going for the jugular, contrary to the patronising suggestions by certain media commentators that local radio interviews would be a soft option. 

From Radio Leeds’ opener, “Where’ve you been?”, to a Radio Nottingham listener’s claims that tax cuts were “like a reverse Robinhood”, Radio Teesside’s questioning about dead crabs washing up on local shores, to Radio Lancashire’s focus on fracking, Truss faced a gruelling series of bruising interviews on a range of subjects dear to local radio listeners’ hearts. 

Determined to stick to her key messages and defend last Friday’s “fiscal event”, Truss would not accept any responsibility for Britain’s economic crisis, laying the blame squarely on Vladimir Putin. Sometimes she refused to accept the premise of questioning or simply avoided answering the question altogether. Hesitant and robotic in her delivery, at one stage she was lost for words for almost four seconds while attempting to justify her economic policies to Radio Stoke. It made for painful listening. 

“An utter shitshow”, “brutal”, “gaslighting” and “blind to reality” were just some of the reactions to her car crash interviews from media commentators and MPs across the political divide.

As The Guardian pointed out, the “PM’s eight short interviews produced more news than a typical slot on Radio 4’s Today programme”. 

Whatever you think about Truss and Kwarteng’s dogged devotion to trickle-down economics, the episode shows the importance of communication in averting and handling a crisis (although Truss’s team, of course, deny that it is a crisis). 

While Truss is by no means a natural communicator, there are still some fundamental principles that she, and her team, should observe: 

  • Be prepared – don’t launch a new initiative until you’re ready, then provide a thorough and timely briefing of the policy or strategy, backed up by sound evidence, and plan for tough questioning. 
  • Don’t shy away from or delay giving media interviews – a head-in-the-sand mentality simply compounds the crisis, giving the impression of arrogance, complacency or ineptitude. Or all three. But – crucially, as above – be prepared. 
  • Know your audience – be aware of and ensure you can respond to the wide range of issues that might arise, particularly when giving local media interviews. 
  • Show empathy – acknowledge, listen and respond to people’s very real concerns, rather than regurgitating scripted answers that evade the question. 
  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve got it wrong, take ownership, and adjust your strategy accordingly, rather than claiming everything is going to plan despite clear evidence to the contrary. 

Truss – who lest we forget was put in power by a mere 0.17% of British voters – now finds herself alienating not just the markets and the public, including many in the crucial Red Wall constituencies, but a large number of Tory MPs too – among them some of her supporters at the recent leadership contest. 

Unsurprisingly, Labour is riding high in the polls, positioning itself as the party of economic competence. 

With the term ‘fin de siècle vibes’ reportedly being bandied about Westminster, Truss will need all the communications skills she can muster if she, and her party, have any chance of surviving this self-inflicted crisis of confidence and leadership.

By Sarah Peters

Friday 30th September 2022

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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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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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