A crisis: my views on handling a communications crisis

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The world is always changing and evolving with new events constantly reshaping current affairs as we know it. The political landscape, fall in share prices or the constant debate on whether the UK should remain in the EU, are significant things that may affect us all. With so much going on in today’s society it’s not hard to look at today’s media and see you’re not short of some sort of scandal taking place.

Recently one of the biggest leaks in history has caused a huge storm – The Panama Papers. I haven’t been able to listen to the latest headlines or open a newspaper, without reading about the most discussed story in today’s current affairs. The scandal came to public attention, following the leak of 11.3 million documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm. High-ranking politicians, socialites, delegates and banks (who secretly set up accounts for clients), were all embroiled in the nail biting scandal placing them under public scrutiny. This left many questioning what is really going on among some of the wealthiest individuals in the world.

Previously, I had never considered analysing the media the way I do now. Since completing my third week on the Taylor Bennett Foundation, I find myself studying stories in the media without consciously realising it. I began to focus on key events in the news; breaking down where PR had been used to try and control a reputational crisis. What better place to look, than the Panama Paper scandal itself?

The Panama Papers had many officials caught in the centre of these shocking series of events but the story that I found most intriguing was that of our very own Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron. The PM was drawn into the limelight, after it came to public attention that his father Ian Cameron (who had a multimillion-pound investment fund in an offshore account) avoided having to pay British tax for nearly 30 years and was named in the Panama leaks.

When I first analysed this particular PR crisis I saw a number of disparities with the way Downing Street handled the situation. Even though efforts were made to control the situation at hand, I do feel that there were a number of things that could have been improved from a PR perspective, starting with the incoherence of the messaging!

The messaging that has been released from Downing Street was very inconsistent and incoherent, leaving many people frustrated. This in turn caused the PM’s trust polls to fall by eight percent, in comparison to the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn whose rose by 2 percent. In the beginning of the scandal, David Cameron refused to answer questions, stating it was a private matter. Not long after, this completely changed. With heavy amounts of pressure and the EU referendum around the corner the PM then went on to admit having shares in his father’s offshore account, Blairmore Holdings which he went on to sell making a profit of £19,003. The entire handling of the situation began to make him look guilty of wrongdoing, despite stating he did nothing illegal and that he dealt with everything in the right fashion. He then went on to publish a report of his tax earnings.

I was completely shocked by the way Downing Street had dealt with the crisis as they left the PM open for more criticism from the public, key officials and his fellow political peers/opponents. Mr Cameron is heading the fight against corruption yet is being conveyed as not being completely transparent with the public, leaving many to question the PM’s agenda. After closely examining the PR handling of the political crisis, I came up with some strategies on what Downing Street should have done differently. I’m not an expert yet (I hope I will be after seven more weeks) but from a logical PR perspective there are a number of things that could have been implemented to improve the way the circumstances were dealt with.

Below, I have compiled a small list of objectives that I would use to improve the way Downing Street executed their PR strategies and it goes as follows:

  • Consistency, consistency and consistency again!! It is highly important that the messaging is always coherent, consistent and unified as it builds public trust in a positive light.
  • Produce a number of potential questions and answers that he could refer to when speaking to journalists instead of deflecting the problem at hand as a private matter.
  • Push the focus back onto the remain in the EU campaign and fight against anti-corruption, empathising that he is for the people and is doing all he can as a leader to improve current events.
  • Secure the PM an exclusive interview slot either on the news i.e. BBC or publication – this gives Mr Cameron the opportunity to be transparent because he wants to, not because his been pushed into a corner to defend himself!
  • Finally push a social media campaign out on Twitter with the #TellDavid – this gives the public an opportunity to voice concerns (of what is going on) to their leader, making them feel that the PM is not a stereotypical politician but in fact is innovative and willing to connect with his people in a modern form. (Of course these would need to be gone through with a fine-tooth comb!)

Overall there are a number of ways that the PR crisis for this particular situation could have been handled differently. Clear lines of communication are vital for leaders and key figures to gain support and insure all key stakeholders are satisfied without the fear of disruption to business operations.

Let’s hope Downing Street make it a priority to have a clear line of messaging before releasing any more statements in the future!

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