“Dominic Cummings faced an agonising decision. But he made the wrong call, at a time when the government’s guidance to the public to stay at home was clear. I understand the public’s anger and have made this clear in my discussions with him. But I do not believe this error is serious enough to cost anyone their job. Dominic Cummings still has much to offer this government. I want us to move forward and focus entirely on recovering from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.”[A suggested response].
You may disagree with the words used above, and there are many other things that can be said about Dominic Cummings’ breach of the government’s guidance by travelling to Durham. But if you heard something like this from the Prime Minister before this crisis engulfed his government, how would you feel?
You may be hacked off that the architect of the government’s ‘stay home’ message travelled 260 miles as the rest of the country followed the guidance.
Would acknowledging an error of judgement have ‘drawn a line’ under the issue? It won’t have stopped the negative headlines, it’s true. But it may have lessened the hit to its reputation, which has been severe. It could be lasting.
How ‘holding the line’ has failed
Instead, we’ve heard statements about responsibility and integrity and seen ministers not give an inch in the ensuing battle over Cummings’ job. I’ve been thinking about this all week and find it difficult to know where to start when it comes to how badly this has been handled.
Ministers’ ‘holding the line’ on social media was an embarrassment. Take a look at the posts collated here.
That Downing Street rose garden press conference, which many PR people (myself included) condemned, raised more questions than answers.
Retrospectively editing a blog post to include concerns about coronavirus a year after its publication, and suggesting that he predicted an outbreak was egregious. That would be a sackable offence wherever I’ve worked in the last 20 years, including in government.
If there was a strategy of denial and deflection, it hasn’t worked. This issue has cut through to the public in a way not seen since the MPs’ expenses scandal more than a decade ago. Polls indicate a big drop in confidence in government. The Guardian reports this week that trust in its handling of the crisis has plummeted.
Social media is full of negative comments, even if you filter out the usual tribal nonsense. A brief review of tweets mentioning #Cummings last weekend using our social listening tool identified tens of thousands of posts in 24 hours. More than 80% of those were negative. That’s extraordinary, even if you believe that Twitter is a pretty negative place.
Local newspaper letters pages, a reliable barometer of community views, have also been full of comments on Cummings.
There are different explanations for this. This list isn’t exhaustive, but is intended to highlight the views expressed. The Government is culturally unable to acknowledge any mistakes until it is forced to do so, probably at an inquiry. The daily media briefings are driven by a desire to the shape the next set of headlines, with ministers taking turns to say: ‘And that’s why today I can announce….’. The media’s blood-lust for a ‘gotcha’ moment creates a circus and misreads the public appetite for clear, unbiased information. Social media is toxic and fuels mistrust. I can empathise with all these points, but none offer a complete explanation for how we’ve got here.
Survival, at what cost?
Some say this skirmish will be forgotten now that Cummings appears to have ‘toughed it out’. Away from Westminster, that feels like a complacent assumption. Trust in the government’s messaging has taken a hit at precisely the wrong time, as the country emerges tentatively from lockdown.
I’ve worked on a couple of pretty big crises during my career. They’re tough. One thing that’s stuck with me in those situations is the importance of being as straight as possible. Lying, or retrospectively editing blog posts, is a non-starter. COVID-19 has proved that crisis management textbooks won’t cover every scenario. It’s also highlighted (again) that you can’t bullshit your way out of one.
This is why many public relations people are aghast at how this has been handled, and doubly frustrated at the ‘PR disaster’ tag attached to it. It’s a reputational disaster, for sure. But others can lay claim to the disaster tag before comms people are asked to clear up the mess they’ve created.
Time to change
Every time I’ve seen the ‘holding the line’ approach used during this crisis, it’s looked more out-of-step with what the public is looking for.
Every pledge that isn’t delivered or is overblown – think ‘world beating’ last week – chips away just a little bit more at the public’s trust.
All the while, I increasingly hope we’re approaching a moment when the government genuinely opens up, owns its mistakes and explains what it’s going to do about them. It’ll generate some nasty headlines. But it will be the right thing to do.
When you’re in a crisis, knowing that you’re taking the right course of action gives you the confidence to stand behind your approach. This is because what you’re saying is consistent with your organisation’s intentions and actions. If there’s one lesson to take from this, it’s that saying one thing and doing another gets people’s backs up. It may even prove to be the government’s undoing.
In the meantime, many people yearn for a different approach to the jousting between ministers and the media. I’d bet that most comms people are with them on that. It feels like we’re a long way from that moment. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept that.
I’d like to think that those who are paid to advise on reputation understand how their actions can influence positive change. We do this in many different ways, every day. By being ethical. By calling out misinformation and disinformation. By working with the media and opposing those who try to bully or silence journalists. By taking the time and trouble to read stuff before sharing and commenting on it. By owning mistakes and encouraging others to do the same. By trying to do what is right, rather than what looks right.
That may sound unreasonably optimistic. But blindly ‘holding the line’ has had its day. It’s up to those of us who know this to accelerate its demise.