David Cameron should know you can’t spin yourself out of a reputation crisis

Here we go again, again. Another public figure thinks it’s possible to use spin to manage a reputation crisis. It’s not. It never is. And what might seem surprising to many is that David Cameron’s background is in PR; surely he’d know how to deal with a crisis?

Unfortunately, the two – PR and reputation crisis management – are not the same. Although you need to use some PR methods to get your message across in a reputation crisis – press statements, speeches, publishing evidence – you can’t use others.

Much of PR is about telling the good bits of a story – that’s spin. The less good bits, which might not be so palatable, are left out. We see it everyday in, for example, supermarkets engaging in price wars or shops offering cheaper goods. Advertisements tell us that the cost of one supermarket’s chicken, breakfast cereal or carrots is lower than another’s. What those adverts don’t tell us is how the supermarket has brought those prices down. It’s unlikely to be senior leadership taking pay cuts or shareholders sacrificing their dividends. It’s highly likely it will be by reducing the price at the farm gate – paying the farmer less or finding a farmer with lower (less expensive) standards. Many people don’t bother to think through the implications of a low price; they just buy cheap. Based on a partial story.

You can’t secure a good reputation – or recover from a reputation crisis – using a partial story. When David Cameron, caught up in the Panama Papers revelations, stated that he, his wife and his children “do not benefit from any offshore funds” there can’t have been many people who didn’t scratch their heads thinking about his use of the present tense. If his father had invested in an offshore fund, as revealed by the Panama Papers, how could David Cameron not have benefited from it, either when his father was alive or after his father’s death? It seems impossible for him not to have benefited, directly or indirectly, doesn’t it? If he benefited before he was prime minister, why not say so? It indicates privilege, yes, but not necessarily hypocrisy. Dealing with it so simplistically – without giving us facts and figures – made us want to know more. Trying to clarify it later, while appearing full and frank and saying he’d learned a lesson – made it worse because he still left questions (voiced or silent) unanswered. Again, he wasn’t straight with us. He gave us a partial story. It was spin.

What happened next? He clearly hadn’t learned a lesson as, even after what he implied was a final all embracing confession, it emerged that his full story was very much less than that. There was more to come – and journalists, who are paid to get to the bottom of stories, dug away and found it.

Have we heard it all? Given that it has been so painfully difficult getting to the facts we have been given so far, it’s hard to be sure. What is certain is that David Cameron has damaged his own reputation by misusing PR. He should have known better.

There are some very simple rules when faced with a reputation crisis:

  • never lie – the truth will emerge and you will be found out;
  • never fudge – someone will spot the holes and work hard to fill them;
  • get all the bad news out at once – if there is a full story, give it in one go; if you need time to find out all the facts, say so – then do your research, as speedily as you can, and tell it like it is.

Spin is no use in a reputation crisis. The only way to manage a reputation crisis is by being open, honest and straightforward. If you value your reputation, don’t use cheap tricks. It isn’t a supermarket price war.

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