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.

No comment »

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.

No comment »

News International’s reputation crisis – numerous lessons in what not to do

News International’s fascinating reputation crisis has highlighted so many issues about crisis management it is hard to know which to focus on in a blog giving tips. Meanwhile, the story keeps developing faster than I can keep up – which is typical of crises that are mismanaged. And that is lesson one:

Take control from the start. News International lost the chance to be in control – by not taking it from the start and that’s the first crucial and critical aspect of good crisis management, when a crisis blows. You can only do that if you anticipate the worst and mitigate against it. From News International’s point of view, the worst must be what is happening now – a problem with one publication in its stable has ended up shaking the worldwide reputation of the whole of News Corp. News International has been dodging the worst since the issue of phone hacking first arose. It hoped a couple of seemingly dramatic steps (Clive Goodman’s arrest and imprisonment; Glenn Mulcaire’s arrest and imprisonment) would convince us that it had got rid of the causes of their misdeeds. The problem is that the public suspected that they were acting on higher orders; someone sanctioned their behaviour, and that someone is still somewhere in News Corp. And that leads to lesson two:

Token gestures do not work. The sacking of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire didn’t go far enough – and didn’t we all suspect that? The announcement of an internal inquiry didn’t go far enough – and didn’t we all suspect that? Rebekah Brooks, it has just been announced, is now not going to lead that internal enquiry – and didn’t we know all along that she shouldn’t? Closing the News of the World ends its 168-year history – but aren’t we all questioning the integrity of all Murdoch titles, indeed all Murdoch media businesses? And that leads to lesson three:

Take swift, decisive action. If the sackings of the wrongdoers had been followed by significant shifts in policy which were then put into action, this crisis might have been avoided. It looks, though, as if the corruption was so endemic that it was impossible to stop it without closing the title. If that had been done then, when the issues first arose, the damage to News International would have been much less. Yes, there would have been a media frenzy. Yes, politicians would have spoken out. But some voices would have been supportive – and the impact much less as a result. And that leads to lesson four:

Consider those you might affect: A crisis in any organisation or business will have an impact on others. Some will be friends and some foes; your aim must be to win public support from friends and to keep foes quiet. Well, didn’t the News of the World do well. It’s hard to find any friends who have not turned into foes and those who have spoken out have had an enormous impact including big brand advertisers, charity partners and shareholders; we have yet to see what effect it has had on its readers. But it has had a much wider impact on organisations that were already in a weak position: threatening the future of the Press Complaints Commission (long due a wholesale overhaul); dragging the integrity of the Metropolitan Police into the open, yet again (long due a wholesale overhaul); raising serious questions about political friendships and contributions (long due a wholesale overhaul). It has thrown doubt on the prime minister’s judgement (not just about appointing Andy Coulson but also about forging links with editors). It will undoubtedly raise questions about other tabloids and whether they always tell the truth (we know they don’t). It is not inconceivable that others of its newspapers – wherever they are published – could be at risk. We know that it has affected News Corp’s bid for BSkyB. It will affect the public’s view of James Murdoch (who has stepped in to try to shift the image of the crisis but been unconvincing). And it will make people question the business ethics of Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth Murdoch, her husband Matthew Freud and his business Freud Communications (whose approach to crisis management has not always been the best). Which leads to lesson five:

Be wary of forging alliances: Having the support of big names – celebrities, brands, decision-makers – is inevitable; it adds credibility and draws attention. But it has a flip side; it’s the reverse of considering those you might affect: it’s about how your allies might affect your reputation if they do something wrong or inappropriate. That’s why Ford, the Royal British Legion and others have withdrawn their support; they cannot afford to be dragged down by News International’s dodgy reputation. And that leads to lesson six:

It takes years to build a reputation – and a second to destroy it. Of course, you could argue that the News of the World’s 168 year reputation was always as a distributor of sleaze – but millions read it (including, for several years many years ago, me) and millions loved it (including, for several years many years ago, me). It punctured puffery – but it failed when it failed to puncture its own. And that leads to lesson seven:

Don’t get too big for your boots. We see it over and over again. Success, or being surrounded by yes-men or being courted by the great and the good, makes people feel invincible. Peter Mandelson, Gordon Ramsay, Tony Hayward, Hosni Mubarak, Fergie, the Pope, HMRC, British Airways, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks … they all faced crises because they behaved as if they were above it all. And that leads to lesson eight:

It’s all about trust. For decades, dinner party chat has been about Murdoch, his approach and his publications – and not in a good way. The public does not trust Rupert Murdoch. We see politicians toadying up to him and his editors, and we don’t like it. We see a man consumed and convinced by his own self-importance, and we don’t like it. We see a business empire getting ever larger, with fewer controls from outside, and we don’t like it. We see him protecting editors and others even when there is evidence that they were implicated, and we don’t like it. Because, just as we all believe in the freedom of the press and their role to tell us what others are trying to hide, we don’t like having the wool pulled over our eyes by people whose role it is to expose the truth, but who lie themselves. We knew there was worse to come and that it extended well beyond the News of the World; we had little trust. Which leads to lesson nine:

Face the music. The most striking image of all throughout this saga was the one of Rupert Murdoch – a media man who knows the rules – when he said “no comment” – the biggest sin in media management – when door-stepped by journalists. When you say nothing, the only inference people will make is that you have something to hide. We all know that there must be more to come. Much more. We’ve had fudge, denial, pretence, lies. We’ve even had Rebekah Brooks claiming to be on holiday every time a problem arose (as if that means she is not ultimately responsible). They have not worked. They never work. They do not build trust. They will always be exposed. Which leads to lesson 10 which is, in reality and always, lesson one:

Be honest, open and transparent: It’s the only mitigation factor that works – and it works every time.

The question is: will we ever get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from News International?

No comment »

When personal crises impact on business

Four crises running in the news demonstrate the conflicts that can arise when the trigger is personal but the impact is on the business. Steve Jobs is taking a back seat at Apple because of his ill-health; Alan Johnson has resigned as shadow chancellor of the exchequer for personal reasons; Andy Coulson has at last resigned as the prime minister’s chief spokesperson; and David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan died last year, has become embroiled in a local case of a mother who needs more help to look after her profoundly disabled child. Each of these raises different issues – and has different impacts – but the crisis is the same; it’s personal.

Can Apple remain rosy?

Any business that relies heavily on its chief executive, or any one individual, for its reputation is in a extremely dangerous position. As its business innovator, and charismatic spokesperson, Steve Jobs is inextricably tied to the Apple logo just as Richard Branson is synonymous with Virgin. When Jobs or Branson become the story, their brand and its reputation are bound to be implicated – for better or worse.

In the case of Jobs, with long-standing serious health problems, Apple has been lucky that the effect of his absences has been small and relatively short-lived dips in it share price. But what might happen if he can’t come back to the job? While Apple has said that its product line is secure for the next two to three years, what will happen after that? Will it cease to be as innovative – simply churning out the same products while others make advances?  Will it lose cachet – with Apple products no longer the must-haves people queue for even in countries not used to queueing? Will it become just another technology company, no longer ahead of the pack?

Every business needs to have an exit strategy. For small businesses, that might be to build a business that is strong enough to sell when the owner wants to retire and at a price that protects, or enhances, the owner’s lifestyle. For serial entrepreneurs, it might be to create a business ripe for takeover after a few years, leaving its owner free and well-funded enough to start up another venture to sell. For Apple, the need is for shareholders to continue to provide the cash it needs to innovate and grow so it can at least retain its market share – and for fans like me to continue to want to buy its new products. To do this it must have plans for how Steve Jobs will be replaced whenever he leaves, and it could be sooner than anyone wants.

The issue, for the moment, is whether Apple should have said what those plans are – to reassure investors. The rule book says yes – and I would counsel any business to follow best practice. But Apple has never played by the rules and, for the most part, investors and fans indulge it in its above-it-all approach. It is taking a gamble – but, provided it has a big announcement up its sleeve for when Steve Jobs disappears for good, saying nothing now could well pay off. Just don’t risk it yourself – unless your business is an international phenomenon in a class of its own.

Alan Johnson leaves in mist

Fortunately for Alan Johnson, the story of his resignation very quickly became the story of a potential clash, or rivalry, between Ed Balls and Ed Miliband. But, between his leaving and the political hacks rising, there was a gap long enough for the media to want to fill it.

By not explaining the reason for his resignation, Johnson has given the story longer legs. In the absence of authoritative information from him when he resigned, the media has dug around and found plenty to fill its empty pages (apparently an affair between his wife and his protection officer). And the pages might not read as Mr Johnson wishes.

He will, at some point, have to make a statement – whether to correct, clarify or confirm the speculation. He should have taken control of the story and told it like it is, getting it over and done with at the point of his resignation (not unreasonably, simultaneously asking the press to respect his and his wife’s privacy while they sort things out). Instead he is now on the back foot (and very lucky that Balls and Miliband are providing a distraction).

Andy Coulson exits under a cloud

“… when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to move on.” At last, some common sense from the supposedly media savvy Andy Coulson who has been under attack almost from the start of his sojourn at 10 Downing Street. Whether he did know about phone-hacking at the News of the World when he was its editor is not for me to say – though if he didn’t know, surely he wasn’t on the pulse of what was going on at his own paper. And, if he did know …

Regardless, this issue is about when to resign if you are under personal attack: almost always, it should be immediately and without equivocation – because it is almost impossible to carry on as normal with the media sniffing away, determined to uncover something. If it turns out you did nothing wrong, you can go back with your head held high and new respect from others. But while there is any doubt in the public’s mind – and especially if the media is gunning for you – going fast is the thing to do.

It is perfectly honourable to say something like “I have done nothing wrong but, while there is an investigation, I cannot give my full attention to the job so I am stepping down for the time being”. The truthful will be reinstated with added value; the untruthful will get what they deserve. The real sin is to hang on like grim … Andy Coulson.

David Cameron accused of being too close to the subject

Today’s PR Week carries a story, driven by a former colleague of mine, about David Cameron’s fitness to see an issue objectively. Cameron has been accused of being too close to a subject and getting it wrong.

During the general election campaign he met Riven Vincent, mother of a severely disabled child, after an exchange on Mumsnet. Very recently, Vincent posted a comment on Mumsnet saying that she was thinking of putting her daughter into care as she was finding it so hard to cope with so little respite care. The brouhaha that followed centred on the government’s cuts – though there has been no reduction in the level of support Vincent has received and nor is there any threat of a reduction. Cameron has written to Vincent. My former colleague thinks he should have resisted.

Cameron’s damned if he does and damned if doesn’t. On balance, he did the right thing – he’s spoken often about his personal experiences with his son Ivan and will always be associated with issues affecting families with profoundly disabled children. If he had said nothing he’d have been accused of callousness; criticism of his policies would have escalated and he’d have lost personal credibility. More importantly, he would not have been true to himself if he had failed to respond this time – and would have been wide open to personal and professional criticism.

Being authentic is essential – though I realise not everyone in the communications industry follows this golden rule.  Yes, Cameron needs to work out a way of dealing with similar cases so he can manage the situation if it arises again which it is bound to do given that it is so emotive, but he is undeniably personally associated with the issue and cannot duck it for political expediency.

Silence is never acceptable in a crisis. It implies there is something to hide – and that implication can only damage a reputation. Unless you are Apple.

Comments (1) »

Gordon Brown gets it right

This is nothing to do with political balance (an earlier blog recommended you take advice from David Cameron). It has everything to do with getting it right. Not even his worst enemies could fault Gordon Brown on the way he handled the personal crisis he faced at the very bitter end of his prime ministership.

Forced to hang on while the Lib Dems played off one party against another, he decided enough was enough and he was off. No one should hang on like grim death to anything but not having the courage to take decisive action is what makes so many crises turn into dramatic disasters. He was right to leave and pronto – as soon as it became clear there was no chance of a Lib-Lab coalition. The next question to deal with was how.

What puts most people off making decisions is fear of the consequences but these can be managed – if you anticipate what they might be. For Gordon Brown, the consequences were no longer about his political life and reputation; they were over. They were about salvaging respect (for himself and for his wife and family) so he could build a new life. Having already declared that he and Sarah did not want to seek roles in business (though I bet a few well-paid consultancies creep in) but that they wanted to make a contribution through voluntary work, he needed to look and sound like a charitable fellow.

By making a speech that put his role as husband and father centre stage in his life, he instantly softened the tough, out of touch image the public had built up of him. But then what? Leaving by the front door of No 10 and walking down Downing Street in full public glare takes a lot of courage when the nation has rejected you. To do so with his two small sons, looking like a normal family man, was a masterstroke. The risk was that he could be accused of exploiting his children for his own ends but seeing such a happy family of four, all joined by holding hands, the adults sharing a joke or offering an explanation to the boys – just as so many mums and dads do – put him firmly in the warm, everyday world that charities work so hard to achieve.

We saw for the first time (well, for the first time since his daughter Jennifer died) a human being with vulnerabilities, modesty, humour and respect for others – an all round good egg.  And that’s exactly what he needed to show.

No comment »

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.

No comment »