Nick Clegg and Andrew Mitchell get their apologies wrong

The public debates still rage about whether deputy prime minister Nick Clegg ought to have apologised for making a pledge he didn’t keep about tuition fees – and whether chief whip Andrew Mitchell described the police as “plebs” when he was asked to cycle through a side gate, rather than the main gate, at Downing Street.

Let’s leave aside the distractions drummed up by the media – whether Nick Clegg ought to have apologised for not keeping his promise (rather than for making a promise he was not certain he could keep – it’s a subtle distinction) and what exactly Andrew Mitchell has apologised for – and focus on the effects of their apologies.

They used very different tactics. Nick Clegg stood in front of a camera and used a party political broadcast to speak direct to millions. Andrew Mitchell talked on the phone to the policeman he swore at and issued a statement for journalists to pass on to the public. Assuming that both Nick Clegg and Andrew Mitchell hoped to limit the damage to their reputations, neither apology worked. Why?

It’s easy to see why Andrew Mitchell’s initial apology failed. First, being visible when apologising is almost always essential, even more so if you hold high office. If you can’t be seen while you are communicating, the assumption will be that you have something to hide. Secondly, according to press reports (which, as everyone knows, might not be accurate) his public statement appears to have been not wholly true. Having first said he did not accept that he “used any of the words that have been reported”, he apparently later admitted saying “fucking” though he continues to deny saying “plebs”. His statement this morning – a second failed attempt to close down the story – leaves the issue just as wide open; he said: “I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not use the words that have been attributed to me”. On being pressed about whether he swore, he said he was going to go in and get on with his work, pursued by journalists wanting a full answer to a simple question: what did he say?

If you’ve done something wrong, admit it – fast and in full. Holding back information that might emerge later is a short-term quick-fix high-risk strategy. The facts almost always come out – no matter how powerful or above the law you believe you are and especially when, as in this case, others were present or involved in the incident. Getting all the bad news out in one go at the start curtails speculation, clarifies the picture, controls the debate, clears the air and allows you to start working on rebuilding your reputation. A drip, drip, drip approach to communication causes far more damage – the original misdemeanour will be repeated every time new information ekes out, and the voices of your detractors will become louder and more persuasive. No surprise that it generated strong opinions on Twitter – and raked up earlier examples of arrogance and unflattering nicknames.

In Nick Clegg’s case, it was not the judicious-for-him timing or the somewhat naïve wording of his statement that turned his apology into a crisis. It was his facial expressions and forced vocal emphasis; they did not seem genuine. His face often lacks movement so to see his eyebrows lurching up and down at judicious moments and his head tilting as if to emphasise sincerity, appeared unnatural. I wondered if he’d been practising in front of a mirror, acting and speaking in a way he thought would look and sound right, rather than behaving normally. Apologies must be honest and truthful – which includes being true to yourself, not creating a pastiche or caricature. No wonder it spawned a spoof video on YouTube.

Two politicians, two crises, two apologies – both generating strong criticism and long-running debates. Even allowing for the fact that they occurred at sensitive times (for Nick Clegg it was the Liberal Democrat party conference and a need to prevent a leadership challenge – also the perfect springboard, in an ironic twist, for him to urge Andrew Mitchell to come clean); for Andrew Mitchell it was the tragic murder of two women PCs) neither needed to get so out of hand.

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England’s riots: over-promising is a crisis management sin

The riots in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds and Liverpool have catapulted England into the spotlight around the world. Much talk has been about the timing – potentially disastrous, a year before the Olympics when England wants the world to visit – demonstrating how damaging, and far-reaching, the impact of a crisis can be.

The riots also occurred a little under a year before London’s mayoral election – opening up disagreements, on cuts to the police budget, between the Conservative government (struggling to balance the books) and the Conservative mayor for London Boris Johnson (seeking re-election) – and giving the Labour party (seeking to oust Boris Johnson) the best opportunity to turn the police cuts into an even hotter political topic.

One contentious issue (long-standing shortcomings in policing) led to a crisis (the riots) which created another (the risk to the Olympics) and another (jeopardising the outcome of an election).

And then prime minister David Cameron committed a crisis management sin. He over-promised.

Speaking in the House of Commons today, having recalled Parliament which was in recess for the summer, he said the government would “do whatever it takes to restore law and order and to rebuild communities”. A tall order but fair enough. He hasn’t set a time limit; he hasn’t specified how – he has not boxed himself in.

His words to “the lawless minority, the criminals who’ve taken what they can get” have created a problem.  He said, “We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done.”

How on earth is he going to ensure that? Yes, some rioters and looters were arrested immediately and have already appeared in court (in a process that has been described as chaotic and over-stretched … in short, that’s another crisis). But the others – the people who might have been caught on CCTV cameras or mobile phones but who skidaddled at speed, and those who escaped being captured on camera and in person – can he guarantee they will all be tracked down, found, charged and punished? Of course not.

While the public might not hold him to account on these promises (though it is a risk, particularly if there are more civil disruptions) you can be sure that many of those who are not tracked down, found, charged and punished will gloat about their ability to evade the law. They might become local heroes and they might incite others to take part in lawless behaviour. One over-promise; one almighty crisis waiting to happen.

Demonstrating control and saying what you will do to prevent the occurrence from happening again are essential aspects of crisis management. So is then making sure you do what you said you would do.

David Cameron cannot fulfill his promise – and has exposed himself, his party and the government to new risks that could lead to another crisis… as if he did not already have plenty to grapple with.

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The Met Police – is what they say what they mean?

The response from the Metropolitan police to the anti-Conservative Party student riots in London yesterday raises some interesting issues.

The commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, made a statement on television last night  in which he apologised for the Met’s inadequate response to the rioters, pledged to find out what went wrong and promised to do everything possible to make sure it didn’t happen again. His tone, demeanour and words were exactly right. Top marks.

Today not only has the government criticised the Met for its failure to expect the unexpected but the Met has also let itself down. Its website does not include the commissioner’s comments.

Instead, it carries a short, sharp, shock of a statement more or less absolving itself of responsibility because they had been given duff gen. It was going to be peaceful, they had been told by the organisers, so they took a minimalist approach. [http://ow.ly/38qZ4]  They have also added an even shorter statement about the 50 arrests made as a result. [http://ow.ly/38rKP]

And that’s it.

So, is it conciliatory or bullish? Has it apologised or passed the buck? Is it only interested in arrests and self-serving back-covering – or in improving its service?

During a crisis, press officers will be under huge pressure. The volume of calls will be overwhelming; time will slip through fingers. Everyone will run on empty – or biscuits that result in short bursts of energy (which might make them feel invincible) followed by long slumps of exhaustion (when the easiest task will be too much hard work).

But someone, whether wired or tired, needs to be responsible for keeping up the flow of information and for ensuring it reflects the business’s position.

When a chief exec speaks direct to camera or on radio, rather than on paper with words in quotation marks, producing a transcript or putting the video or recording on the website is an essential task. Otherwise its absence will speak louder than words.

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What, take a tip from a politician?

I know politicians are criticised for not answering the question and that, by suggesting you take a tip from one, I might have lost your attention already. But, in a crisis, not answering can be your best tactic. That doesn’t mean staying silent (that’s the worst plan of inaction). You need to put your points across and the trick is to find a way of making it happen, seamlessly.

Ignore the subject, and disregard the person speaking; take this for what it is: a nifty way of turning round the conversation. It’s David Cameron being pressed by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on his relationship with the non-domiciled Lord Ashcroft, as reported in The Independent this morning:

“I can’t remember when I first met Michael Ashcroft, but let’s put it in perspective a little bit. I’ve totally changed the way the Conservative Party raises money. We have broadened the supply … It’s not reliant on just a few millionaires any more.”

Just nine words (10 if you count let’s as two) and he’s changed the angle of the story. It’s worth taking a tip from this pro, whatever your political colour.

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