The anatomy of a PR disaster. What lessons can we learn and why we all have a stake in how much he cares
Dominic Cumming’s press conference yesterday was remarkable.
Despite objections the press conference broke etiquette it was not remarkable because it took place in the Rose Garden.
It was also not remarkable because it took place on a Bank Holiday Monday.
And, although it was a relief to many, the press conference was also not remarkable because Dominic Cummings wore a shirt.
It was remarkable because after four days of completely dominating the national news agenda the press conference still failed to kill the story.
In line with the rest of the Government’s response to the Dominic Cummings story it failed to achieve some of the basic objectives of crisis communications.
As a result, this story will very legitimately continue to run and run.
Sadly, the story is overshadowing hugely important and much-needed Government good news policy announcements, some of which appear to have been rushed out half-to-three-quarters baked in an attempt to seize back the news agenda, but with journalists unprepared for the announcements ahead of time.
The government pledging an additional £160m to build 6,000 new homes to prevent people who had been sleeping rough from returning to the streets after the pandemic, being one such example of a significant story going out over a Bank Holiday weekend.
Even the story of shops re-opening after almost three months of closure isn’t the main story on the front page of many of today’s papers.
What should they have done differently?
Context is king – you must recognise the importance of the issue
As a former news reporter, I strongly believe press packs of photographers and journalists should not be happening anywhere in the age of physical distancing.
However, on day two of the news story when Dominic Cummings told reporters outside his house: “Who cares about good looks” he not only grossly underestimated the importance of the story he also told people he was not concerned about public perception of his behaviour.
Being dismissive of journalists and denigrating long-standing, trusted media outlets might work in a short to media term populist agenda. However, attempting to undermine or tame the media is not a strong or coherent long-term strategy for building a strong society – nor is it wise in the short-term when you’re in the eye of a media storm.
Context is king in every situation and it feels like this context has been lost or misunderstood on this issue at the very top of Government.
This pandemic and national lockdown is the biggest crisis to have hit Britain since the outbreak of the Second World War, almost 80 years ago.
However, it’s important to note for context that the lockdown has gone far beyond anything seen during wartime, in terms of the restrictions it placed on people including banning all non-essential travel, banning gatherings of more than two people and restricting people to an hour outside their home each day.
The burden that this virus has placed on people is humungous. It is also hugely important to acknowledge single person in Britain has been affected by the national lockdown.
News of the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser breaking the lockdown has now become the biggest news story of the biggest crisis in 80 years of British history.
Sadly, even eclipsing the news that Britain has the second worst death toll in the world, and that more than 36,000 people have lost their lives from COVID-19, with more than 55,000 excess deaths having been recorded since the start of March.
What’s concerning is that this story has been underestimated by many senior cabinet members.
As a politician with a growing reputation, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak’s response was particularly poor: “Taking care of your wife and young child is justifiable and reasonable, trying to score political points over it isn’t.”
This story is not about trying to score political points. This story is about the public’s understanding of the rules of a lockdown. This story is also about the robustness of Number 10’s response to a crisis. On this occasion it’s a PR and communications crisis but the response of Number 10 here is symptomatic of the way it responds to every situation.
Ultimately, this story is about public trust and public health and safety if the rules of lockdown were to be interpreted differently by every member of the public.
Oliver Dowden’s Tweet also showed a failure to understand the gravitas of the situation: “Dom Cummings followed the guidelines and looked after his family. End of story.”
There is absolutely no way that an issue like the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser becoming the centre of the biggest news story of the day is just going to go away.
The importance of this news story should have been realised immediately and treated with the seriousness it deserved.
Move to get ahead of the story
On Sunday Dominic Cummings spent several hours at Number 10 and in that evening’s press briefing the PM said he had now heard the full version of events.
This response was too late.
Crisis communications planning should have begun on Friday night in order to mobilise more quickly and get ahead of the story.
The objectives of this crisis communications should have been finalised on Saturday morning together with a list of the audiences they needed to convince such as the general public and stakeholders who are important to the COVID-19 response and recovery such as the Cabinet, backbenchers, party associations as well as the media, businesses, scientists, and the Civil Service.
Carefully thinking through what Number 10 wants these audiences and stakeholders to think and do should have been central to the Government’s response as it helps to influence how, when and by whom these messages land.
The Government could undoubtedly have moved faster and more strongly to address this story on Saturday.
Prepare a meticulous response
When preparing a crisis response no stone should be left unturned.
Every statement you make is a thread which could be tugged to unravel your story.
Every comment and gesture will be analysed by teams of reporters and editors and come under scrutiny.
Every line of your story should have evidence to back it up.
Dominic Cummings story should have been watertight and delivered on Saturday providing a robust timeline of everything that happened in the immediate run-up to him leaving London and while he away.
The story was not watertight. And it is still not.
This kind of error is more typical in the communications output of large, busy organisations where decisions can be made without sufficient scrutiny and due diligence.
A team should have been poring over the detail of the full story on Saturday and flagging the holes in it.
It was a big mistake for the Prime Minister to go out publicly and defend Dominic Cummings and his story first. Boris not only did not have a full grasp of the facts he put himself and his own and authority at the heart of this story.
The lack of a meticulous response is a symptom of the broadbrush communications output and broadbrush policy positions of an administration which is not getting to grips with the detail.
There is far too much emphasis on style and nowhere near enough emphasis on substance in communications these days.
This must change.
Instead of a meticulous story, what the media got was a series of questions that give more oxygen to the story and allow it to run and run.
- Did Dominic Cummings really drive the 40-50 minute journey to Barnard Castle to test out his eyesight?
- Why didn’t Dominic Cumming’s wife drive to Barnard Castle?
- If Dominic Cummings took expert medical advice to determine that he was well enough to drive back to London and return to work why did he not take expert medical advice when he decided to break the lockdown and travel from London to Durham in the first place?
- Why did Dominic Cummings go to work inside Number 10 after his wife first fell ill?
- Why were the media reports described as false without a meticulous rebuttal of why they were false?
The take-away – what you have learned and what will prevent it from happening again?
Most crucially the press conference has failed to draw a line under this news story because it wasn’t thought through comprehensively enough with the aim of providing a conclusion or take-away from the press conference.
There were no apologies.
More importantly there were no lessons learned offered at the press conference.
There was an admission that some mistakes were made during the Government’s overall response to Coronavirus but no further detail.
Nothing has been put forward in terms of how things will be done differently were this situation to arise in future.
This situation has obviously raised issues about communications inside Number 10 at this time of national importance.
Give us some understanding of what you have learned and the people and processes you are putting in place to do things differently.
Give us some reassurance that things would be done differently or explained better next time.
If you still have no regrets then you have not learned anything at all from this situation.
If you believe it was reasonable and legal to take these journeys from London to Durham and from Durham to Barnard Castle then why weren’t the media briefed on these journey’s shortly after they happened?
Number 10 is failing in its duty to provide lessons learned, tell us what action will be taken and in doing so provide closure of the episode.
Why is it important?
Why is Dominic Cummings overshadowing other news stories?
When you look at the data the British Government’s message to: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives” can lay claim to being the most successful communications campaign in British history.
After the lockdown was announced on March 23, by the end of the first week of April, Google’s Community Mobility initiative reported that the number of people in shops and recreational areas in Britain had fallen by 78% compared to the same period in recent years.
Community Mobility reported that the number of people using the UK’s public transport network had fallen by 73% over the same period.
Meanwhile a survey published by Imperial College London on April 11, investigating how people in 29 different countries are responding to the coronavirus pandemic, found that 9 in 10 people (90%) in the UK are leaving their home less than once a day.
While “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives” has literally been enforced by the police and legal courts it has achieved an unmatched level of cut-through with the British population.
Complying with the lockdown has been an incredible test of resilience and endurance for every single person in Britain. Everyone has made huge personal sacrifices to obey the lockdown.
As the father of a four-year-old and a 14-week-old old baby this has been the most challenging three months of my life, but every person in Britain, whether single, married, co-habiting, living with children or not, has faced a test of resilience like no other they have ever faced.
As such I have significant empathy for the situation that Mr Cummings was facing.
He has undoubtedly made huge personal sacrifices in his job and also in not being able to visit his uncle Lord Justice Laws who passed away from Coronavirus.
It has been every person’s worst fear that they or someone in their home would catch COVID-19 and face the prospect of the entire household getting it.
However, the advice that the population has been following rigidly for the first seven weeks of the lockdown has been: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives”.
In his speech announcing the lockdown two months ago on Saturday, Boris Johnson said: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
Government advertising published during the lockdown stated: “If one person breaks the rules, we will all suffer.”
Anyone disobeying the strict lockdown rules faces the potential of a police fine of which more than 14,000 have been issued so far. Anyone breaking the lockdown rules is also open to huge public criticism for endangering lives.
If we are all in this together there cannot be a public perception of there’s one rule for me and another rule for others.
It is even more important in Dominic Cummings’ case because he helped create these rules and will have been involved in signing off the Government’s official messaging to influence the behaviour of the public.
If the person setting the rules does not follow the rules it causes other people to question them whether they should follow them.
Why does this matter now the lockdown is ending?
There is no vaccine for COVID-19.
A second wave of COVID-19 infections is eventually inevitable without a vaccine.
Emergency services and local authorities across Britain are already bracing themselves for this second wave this winter.
In saying that Dominic Cummings was “following the instincts of every father” Boris Johnson has made an error of judgement.
In a global health emergency Boris Johnson cannot put anyone or anything above the health and safety messaging.
It was this reason which led to the resignation of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer for visiting her second home during this crisis.
In choosing to back his Chief Adviser Boris has told the public that while the public must stay at home, in extenuating circumstances they do not always have to stay in the current home in which they are residing.
In doing this our Prime Minister potentially compromises his own authority.
When the next wave of the pandemic emerges Boris could struggle to muster the same level of public support to obey another lockdown.
This is a huge issue for the leader of a country during a global health emergency.
The Sun’s fawning coverage of Dominic Cummings today and their attempt to turn the situation into a tribal culture war ultimately does him no favours and also does the people of Britain no favours.
If a Government receives over-the-top partisan support for a communications disaster like this then there is no incentive for the Government to get any better.
The power of our media is one of our few ways of ensuring our Government improves its response to COVID-19 and future emergency situations.
The British public has done exceptionally well to obey the lockdown.
We can clearly see that there are multiple failures of communication in Number 10’s response to the Dominic Cummings’ story which are important to flag to demand that Number 10 must do better in future.
Dominic Cummings might have said that he does not care but we need to know that deep down he really does care.
The entire country has a stake in him caring and performing to the best of his ability in his role.
Public trust and the health and wellbeing of our families and friends is at stake.
We must hope that Number 10 knows that this could and should have been handled better.