The Number 10 Party Scandal – How NOT to do Crisis Communications
Go on, admit it. Most of us have been to a party at some point in our lives and regretted it afterwards for whatever reason. However, there can’t be many get-togethers that have caused so much trouble and provoked so much anger and tears as what is widely accepted to have been a party for staff at number 10 Downing Street last December.
So why was this event so controversial, and how badly has the government handled it? In many ways, it’s obvious why the story of a party at number 10 Downing Street during lockdown might have made so many people so angry. However, to start any analysis of crisis management, it’s worth looking at this situation in more detail.
Why the Backlash?
Essentially, as with so many good new stories, it’s about fairness. We all remember being told by our parents when we were children that life isn’t fair, and yet the fact is that we all have a basic, visceral desire for justice and for things to be “right”. When a group of people seem to break the rules and act unfairly, it naturally makes us angry – as the media know. On the left of the political spectrum, the rich might not pay their fair share of taxes.
Those on the right could be people abusing the benefits system or trying to leapfrog the immigration process.
The fact is that any organisation needs to be very careful with its actions and its communications to make it clear that it’s acting fairly. And, whatever reason, if it isn’t, its Comms team and PR consultancy need to be ready to respond quickly.
What is Crisis Communication?
The Downing Street party is a classic example of how NOT to manage a crisis or difficult situation. For a start, the story has emerged through leaks and investigations by journalists. In our media training and crisis communications courses, we always advise participants to ensure that their organisations get on the front foot in these difficult situations. They are trained to tell it all, tell it quickly and tell it truthfully. This means getting the message out there as soon as possible and revealing all the information you can legally display, and it involves being as transparent as possible. It also means doing this very quickly.
In crisis communications, we used to talk about the “golden hour”. This was when an organisation had to get on the front foot with its communications in a crisis or face firefighting and reacting to the agenda rather than setting it throughout the lifecycle of the crisis. These days, given the power of social media, that “hour” is probably more like a few minutes. The government has allowed this story to run for over a week, with new revelations coming out. No organisation should be so much on the back foot in a crisis that events drag out over this length of time.
What Else Has The Government Failed to do?
Here’s another problem. There have been mixed messages from the prime minister and other spokespeople. Was it a party? Who attended? Did the Prime Minister know about it? If so, when? Is he sorry? There have been different lines on these questions over the last few days. This shows a lack of direction, but it also gives journalists a new angle at regular intervals to keep the story running. This story certainly has legs, as we journalists like to say.
An apology or at least an expression of sympathy where necessary is an essential part of crisis communications, and it needs to be issued as soon as possible. We would typically then urge organisations to talk about carrying out an investigation. This has three advantages:
- It’s true!
- It shows that those in charge are taking action.
- It means that with almost any detailed question, spokespeople can point to the investigation and explain that it’s just too early to give out more specific information.
It also avoids them getting drawn into speculation.
It’s worth noting that an investigation doesn’t work in this particular instance, as most people would say that Boris Johnson could ask his staff at number 10 about what happened.
How Can We Stop This Happening to You?
As we say in our media training and crisis communications workshops, a lot of the success or otherwise of managing the crisis situation is about reasonableness. Would most people consider the actions you as an organisation are taking to be reasonable? Would reasonable people in your situation do what you’re doing? If the answer to these two questions is yes, then your audience is more likely to regard you favourably and take the view that sometimes bad things happen to good people.
Finally, don’t ever record anything that might be damaging. If you have to do this, ensure that anyone with the recording deletes it immediately. Similarly, assume that every microphone is on and that every casual bystander is a reporter.
We work with organisations and individuals with more severe issues to manage and defend than a party. However, in this case, the consequences of not acting quickly, transparently and acknowledging any wrongdoing could be dire for the Prime Minister. This is one party that will leave him with a severe hangover, even though he didn’t even attend it.
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