There aren’t many people who have handled a crisis worse than Neil Parish; the Conservative MP caught watching pornography in the House of Commons. In our Media Training and crisis communications training courses, we’ve been discussing this sorry tale and asking what it means for those in corporate communications who find themselves managing crises and challenging issues.
Are there laws surrounding workplace porn?
First, it’s worth asking why this is such a big story. Watching pornography is, according to surveys, certainly not unusual. Shockingly, doing so in the workplace is also increasingly common. But for a Member of Parliament to be doing it in the House of Commons chamber massively ticks the “unusual” box in our newsworthiness acronym. Boris Johnson has since said that watching pornography at work is ‘unacceptable’. It’s also topical in that it plays into a broader trend – concerns about toxic masculinity and the use of pornography. For all these reasons, it’s a particularly good story for the media.
How Neil Parish handled the crisis
What about the way that Mr Parish has managed the revelations? We always advise people in our crisis communications courses to act quickly. As soon as a data breach occurs, news emerges of a fire or an explosion or an allegation against an organisation, we advise its Comms teams to act quickly, putting them in a position to lead the agenda. Even pausing for a few hours before releasing a comment can result in spokespeople being on the back foot and having to defend the organisation rather than leading on the story.
Neil Parish not only spent some days before coming forward to admit that it was him, but he even appeared on GB News to discuss the issue in general – therefore stoking up the story and adding to gossip and speculation. Finally, he made himself look ridiculous when he was forced to admit that he was the MP in question.
The second big mistake that Mr Parish has made is not to offer an immediate and unreserved apology. We advise corporate communications professionals and PR companies and their spokespeople to do this as soon as possible if they’re responsible for what has gone wrong. Even if it’s not your fault, you can still express sympathy and concern without admitting liability. Issuing a qualified apology peppered with excuses is worse than not apologising at all.
Dominic Cummings, Prince Andrew and their crises
He then did something we have seen two other prominent figures do in recent times when engulfed by scandal. It’s an understandable mistake in some ways, but in crisis communications terms, it’s disastrous. What would spring to mind if I were to say to you, “Barnard Castle” or “I don’t sweat”?
Dominic Cummings bizarre comment that in order to test his eyesight, he decided to drive to Barnard Castle was great for journalists but not good for him. Similarly, Prince Andrew’s claim that because of trauma suffered in the Falklands War, he doesn’t sweat was so downright weird that everybody remembers it. Both comments sparked discussion, jokes and debate and inspired social media Memes.
Media Training and Crisis Communications in parliament
One of the lessons we teach in our crisis communications courses is the importance of being boring when giving a crisis response. Yes, you want to sound sincere, authentic, sympathetic, and appear to be in control, but you don’t want to say anything surprising or unusual.
In our general Media Training courses, we advise people on how to grab the journalist’s attention and create more column inches or seconds of broadcast time by saying something interesting and relevant. However, in a crisis, where you want to close the story down and let the news agenda move on, you should do the opposite.
Class Dominator Tractor
Mr Parish’s claim that he was looking for tractors and the subsequent revelation that he had typed the word “Dominator” into a search engine had a similar effect. Oh, what fun for journalists and wags! And the fact that this has an explanation nearly a week after the original allegations were made revealed his final mistake – keeping the story going.
As we advise participants in our crisis communications training courses and their PR companies and in-house communications people, you need to tell it all, tell it truthfully and tell it quickly. This latter point means getting the story in its entirety out into the public arena and thereby avoiding a drip-drip feed of allegations and revelations. As a result, there’s more chance of allowing the news agenda to move on.
Media Training London
During our 30 years in business, we’ve helped a wide variety of individuals and organisations to handle crises and manage difficult issues and situations in our crisis communications courses. We’ve never had something quite like the Neil Parish situation, but his dreadful crisis management certainly provides some interesting lessons to learn.