It must have been an uncomfortable weekend for Nadhim Zahawi. The Conservative Party chair is under intense scrutiny after it was revealed that he paid a penalty to HMRC over unpaid tax while he was chancellor.
At Communicate Media, we provide crisis communications training and advice to all kinds of organisations, and we’re finding that more and more companies are approaching us for crisis comms training. This is because, as they say, they realise that the world is an increasingly risky, if not hostile, place for businesses, and they want to ensure that should they be accused of anything untoward, they have procedures in place and communications strategies ready to go.
It’s for this reason that we’ve been interested in the way that the media is reporting the controversy and the communications from Mr Zahawi himself – and what has caught our attention is a particular element of crisis communications management in this story.
Political Crisis Management – Nadim Zahawi
There’s a strong element of déjà vu in the case of Mr Zahawi and his tax affairs – the minister is accused of wrongdoing or, at least, dodgy practice. They protest their innocence. The opposition calls for their resignation. The press waits for the next revelation, and the prime minister’s office says that the PM has confidence in the minister. Almost always, of course, the situation ends with the minister resigning.
During our crisis communications training courses, which we run with their PR agencies or in-house Comms teams, we give clients three pieces of advice – “Tell it all, tell it quickly, and tell it truthfully.” To explore these in reverse order, organisations agree with the idea of telling the truth, well, usually anyway. Once you’ve been caught out lying then you’ll never be trusted again – not just by the media, but by your customers, your employees, your suppliers and by any regulators. We advise organisations to be completely honest here – weasel words or clever phrases won’t work – you just need to be completely honest.
When is golden hour?
What about telling it quickly? When we started in crisis communications training, we would talk about “the golden hour”. This was the time in which an organisation could get onto the front foot with its crisis messaging and ensure that they were ahead of the story. These days, with the expansion of social media, that period is probably more accurately “the golden 10 or 15 minutes”. The fact is that organisations that don’t respond immediately in a crisis will find themselves on the back foot, constantly reacting to the latest developments and comments published in the media.
How can you ensure that you’re ready to handle a crisis when timescales are so short? The simple answer is that you need to have your crisis communications channels, both internal and external, already to go at a moment’s notice. We help clients to create template press statements which can be adapted to the situation as the relevant details are slotted into them. This will give you a head start, should you need to say something quickly about a product recall, an accident, or an accusation of bullying within your organisation.
Crisis Communication Workshop
Let’s talk about the first half of the triptych of our crisis communications advice – Tell it all. This is very often the toughest advice for clients here. “Why would we want to release something controversial and unhelpful to the media that they didn’t already know about?” one participant said to us – quite understandably – in a recent crisis communications workshop. First, it might be useful to explore what we mean by telling it all. With this particular client, we had created a realistic crisis scenario which involved a data breach. As part of the fictional scenario, a junior member of the IT team had emailed their bosses a few months earlier to warn them that the organisation might be vulnerable to a hack. So, should the PR consultancy release this information?
Counterintuitively, perhaps, we would say “yes.” The point is that there’s every chance that this email will somehow find its way into the public domain, probably because it’s been leaked to a journalist. We can see this happening with Nadhim Zahawi – a series of leaks, further revelations, and all of this makes for the kind of paper chase journalist love. A story that keeps developing and keeps on giving will keep the media going for days, if not weeks. Although it’s great for journalists, it’s terrible for the organisation involved. Not only does it drag on, but it makes your organisation look secretive, dishonest and incompetent because you can’t, apparently, control the flow of information.
On the other hand, releasing the information quickly means that the whole story is out there in one go and will not drag on for days. It also makes you look open, transparent and helpful. The third benefit is that by releasing these facts yourself rather than allowing them to leak out, you have more control over how and when these revelations are made.
Nadim Zahawi – Communications
By the time you finish reading this blog, Mr Zahawi might or might not still be in his job. Who knows. One thing we can be certain of, though, is that getting on the front foot, and telling the whole story as soon as possible, painful though it might be, is a good way of dealing with a difficult situation, and it’s something that we can help you with our crisis communications training courses.