Was Dominic Cummings right to make his 260-mile trek to Durham a few weeks ago? You probably have your own view. I’m not going to get into the rights or wrongs of his decision but as someone who provides media training courses and advises organisations on how to manage difficult issues, I’m interested in how he handled the issue in terms of media relations. More interestingly – what do they tell organisations and comms people about how to deal with difficult issues?
In any kind of crisis or issue management I always advise people: “Tell it all, tell it quickly, tell it truthfully.” Let’s start with the second of those three. These events took place weeks ago and so that’s when Cummings should have talked about them. The problem with being slow off the mark and trying to keep a mistake (if that’s what it was) or a controversial decision under wraps is that eventually it will almost certainly come out.
What was hidden and has now been revealed has an extra element of drama and the potential for outraged reaction. Allowing journalists to find out about it gives them a coup and it makes you look as if you were hiding something, which you were. Get the news out there quickly and you look transparent and honest as well as being responsible and proactive. Although I hate to use the word spin, let’s just say that it also gives you more of an opportunity to shape the story in a way that suits you.
I also advise people to “tell it all.” This means releasing every bit of relevant information even if it’s not helpful to you. In fact, especially if it’s not helpful. Was, for instance, an email sent a few weeks before the incident warning that it could happen? Is there another example of this embarrassing or controversial even, issue or decision? If so, you need to release information about it and, again, you need to do so as soon as possible.
The benefit to you is that you get the damaging information out into the public domain quickly and in one go, avoiding the drip, drip of negative headlines that the media love but that are so damaging to the organisation involved. As I’ve mentioned above, it also shows that you’re open and proactive. You’re on the front foot here. Another advantage is that it means that you, as the organisation, are the font of information – people come to you for the latest facts rather than picking them up elsewhere.
Did Cummings lie? Well that remains to be seen but “tell it truthfully,” should be obvious. However, that does not mean hiding behind a lawyer’s idea of the truth, the Bill Clinton book of truth telling.
Cummings didn’t apologise. Now, he might feel that he’s done nothing wrong and he did observe that some people might not approve of his actions. But a simple apology – perhaps for the embarrassment that he’s caused the government or for the upset that he’s caused other people at this difficult time for the world, would show some humility and self-awareness. These are two qualities that are particularly important in the corporate world these days.
The other advantage of an apology is that it encourages reciprocal feelings. You know what happens when a friend, colleague or family member with whom you’ve been having a barny apologises – you feel obliged to reciprocate. “I’m sorry I flew off the handle,” for instance, is almost certain to prompt a response such as “OK, well, my language was rather extreme.”
Actually, it’s not quite true to say that Cummings didn’t apologise. He offered a muttered regret for being late. But there’s another lesson – don’t keep the media waiting. Not only is it rude but it makes you look disorganised and it gives the waiting hacks even more time to gossip and speculate. These days they may well do that on social media.
The fact that Cummings has made it clear in the past that he has nothing but contempt for the conventional media means that his messages would be falling on stony ground, whatever they were and however he conveyed them.
One of his biggest mistakes was to hold his press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street. This is unprecedented for a civil servant or government advisor. It makes the whole story even more remarkable which is not good if you’re trying to say “Nothing to see. Move on.” The other problem was it meant that he was then obliged to keep answering journalist’s questions until the media had had their fill.
I always advise people in a crisis situation to avoid holding a full blown press conference. It’s great for the media but it means that you’re like ducks in a shooting range. It’s much better to do an arranged doorstep. Here you step outside your office where the media have been corralled by your comms team. You read out a statement, doing so slowly and scanning the assembled cameras. Your colleague who’s in charge of media management explains that you’ll take a few questions afterwards. You answer three or four and then your colleague thanks the journalists and explains that you need to get back to work but that they’ll be happy to answer any supplementary enquiries. You then make a confident and dignified exit.
I’m conscious that I’ve been very negative about Cummings’ performance. On the positive side he used simple language and spoke slowly and clearly. This is something that we always advise during media training courses and our crisis communications training. I’ll give him that at least.