Letter to James Heappey MP: stand with parliament on Monday

Houses of Parliment in London, where James Heappey votes during the week

I’ve taken time to read the House of Commons Committee of Privileges’ partygate report into Boris Johnson’s conduct. It prompted me to write to my MP James Heappey (Conservative, Wells) to ask him to back the committee’s recommendation and stand with his parliamentary colleagues. This is my letter.

Dear James,

I write to you as a parent, small business owner and someone who has always believed that politics can be a force for good.

I have been fortunate to work with MPs and councillors from all parties throughout my professional life. Thanks to this, I know there are many decent politicians who care about the communities they represent.

As my local MP, you will represent me on Monday when voting on the Privileges Committee’s recommendation to suspend Boris Johnson’s parliamentary pass following their investigation into his conduct.

Having taken the time to read the committee’s report, I urge you to support its recommendation.

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Why your comms team deserves a ‘thank you’

Thank you letters on a wall.

Confusing. Evasive. Flat-footed. Vague! Communicators often come in for criticism during moments of crisis.

Several high-profile examples hit the headlines since our last newsletter. They always stir up debate in our office, and amongst our PR friends.  

First up is the BBC’s response to Gary Lineker’s tweet criticising the government’s small boats policy. I’ve included it below, without passing comment on it, to be clear on what was (and wasn’t) said.

The BBC’s late statement, its tone and inconsistent application of its social media policies stoked a culture war and damaged relations with government and staff. Former BBC news editor and Number 10 Director of Comms Craig Oliver (£) sets out a level-headed assessment of the situation which seemed absent at the height of the crisis. His points: make time to prioritise decisions. Move quickly and decisively. Accept there is no perfect solution that will please everyone.

Commentators also mentioned comms’ role – or lack of – in former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s evasive and tetchy performance at the privileges committee of MPs’ investigation into the Partygate scandal. In fairness, and as I’ve mentioned before, we’re well past the stage of blaming a culture of ministerial evasion on comms people. This has happened for years and needs changing.

And this report from the Housing Ombudsman into Catalyst Housing’s complaints handling and aftercare makes important points around poor communication, sharing information, tone and language. It points to a sector under pressure, created steadily in the absence of effective regulation over the last decade. Many comms people have warned of these risks. Sector leaders must own them now.

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Three points for government comms – and three for me – during lockdown

This week marks the start of a new financial year for us at Social, and my first as managing director of our South West division. I enter it with mixed emotions.

On the upside, I feel elated at our achievements in this most challenging of years. Our team doubled its size and turnover in 2020. We raised the bar in the quality of our work and the type of clients we’re supporting. We’ve adjusted brilliantly to enforced changes in how we work. We’ve been flexible, empathetic and innovative in supporting our clients.

While I don’t take any of this for granted, it is tempered by sadness, anger and despondency at the national response to the pandemic. As a comms person, I’ve despaired at what I’ve seen and heard about events leading up to the latest lockdown announcement.

In an attempt to set this out in coherently, I’ve split this post into two sections: three things I’d change about the government’s handling of this crisis and three things I will do myself. It’s not intended as a plan; it’s more a way to collate my thoughts and feelings to help me to look ahead with clarity.   

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Time to speed up spin’s decline

“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.

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Why government press conferences should change after COVID-19

I’ve often found press conferences frustrating during my career as a journalist, PR person and (lately) as a public observer.

They have their uses. When there is major focus on an issue, they provide all interested media with the latest information. This ensures consistency and even-handedness.

Following criticism of anonymous briefings on COVID-19 to select media, press conferences entered the spotlight as a daily part of the government’s efforts to keep the public updated on the pandemic response. Since mid-March, millions of people are watching them regularly. Many on my Twitter feed – journalists, politicians, comms people, family and friends – appear baffled at journalists’ questions and frustrated at politicians’ non-answers.

Anyone who’s attended or arranged press conferences will recognise these glitches, which are highlighted every day.

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The South West somehow needs to find its voice – and fast

Castle Bridge at Finzels Reach in Bristol.

It’s almost 10 years since I moved from Manchester to start a new life in the South West with my family.

I’ve spent time all over the region since 2010, working in every county. I love its culture, quality of life and the opportunities it has offered us.

The South West is an area of contrasts. It’s largely rural, with successful and sought-after cities like Exeter, Bath and Bristol. These cities are brilliant places to live and work, if you have the skills and experience to find employment there – and can afford somewhere to live.

Somerset, where I live, highlights the region’s contrasts. Many people know the county for Glastonbury festival and Europe’s largest construction project at Hinkley Point C, which is worth £50bn to the region over the coming decades. These are very different things, which together make Somerset an attractive destination for many.

There’s shed loads happening here, and we’re proud to play a part in some of this at Social since we set up in the South West. We’ve supported major developments in Bristol and Gloucester. And we helped the region’s nuclear industry raise its national and international profile.

It’s difficult to know if things would be better for us if we lived elsewhere. But, of all the places I’ve lived and worked, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

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