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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Twitter and Facebook need senior attention

So, according to this morning’s PR Week news bulletin, Nestlé has been facing a barrage of criticism on Twitter and Facebook. At issue is its use in Kit Kats of palm oil from Sinar Mas, an Indonesian company accused of illegal deforestation of rainforests. Greenpeace has highlighted the case.

Nestlé’s response to the criticisms has been inadequate, Facebook users say, and it seems that it’s because, yet again, an important task has been delegated to the wrong person – someone junior who wasn’t using an appropriate tone.

This is a classic. In any crisis, responsibility needs to be taken at the highest level; responses should come from the top. Even if the most senior person can’t physically hit the keyboard, the content and tone should be agreed at that level. And, yes, that applies to comments on Twitter and Facebook. Just because these social media are often used by the young (though recent research found younger people were deserting them), they are also frequently used by people of any age and any seniority. Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife, is not a one-off. And words travel fast, around the world, in this 24-hour publishing medium.

The potential impact of social media in a crisis is massive – and it could be good or bad. Of that there should never have been any doubt – as Nestlé has, through its errors, found out.

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