PR lessons for businesses from the Dominic Cummings interviews

Downing Street has been in transition since Dominic Cummings left No.10 in November last year, with a revolving door of spin doctors failing to fill the void left by the man heralded with securing the UK's exit from the European Union.

PR lessons for businesses from the Dominic Cummings interviews

Downing Street has been in transition since Dominic Cummings left No.10 in November last year, with a revolving door of spin doctors failing to fill the void left by the man heralded with securing the UK’s exit from the European Union.

But his blockbuster evidence session with the Science and Technology Committee this week was not just box office, it was emblematic of a Government which has struggled to get to grips with its communications strategy ever since the start of the pandemic.

The Government’s communications crisis

Firstly, there was mass confusion around lockdown restrictions easing when the government moved away from its stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives messaging. A lack of coherent guidance around local lockdowns between different regions and devolved governments, compounded by Dominic Cummings’s questionable trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, further rendered the rules incomprehensible. More recently, the government has faced criticism for its mixed messaging over the cancellation of Christmas with friends and family, its travel restrictions this summer, and the return to the office.

Cummings’ day-long evidence session has further added fuel to the fire. A fundamental challenge facing Boris Johnson, is one simply of transparency. The Government has faced criticism over the last 12 to 15 months regarding the information being disseminated to the public relating to pandemic decision making. Whether that be the advice SAGE is providing to Cabinet, or the motives behind lockdown decisions, the public has often been kept in the dark, and Cummings’ testimony sheds light on the inner workings of Whitehall during a once in a century global health pandemic.

Objectively, the revelations were damning. A man, who only six months ago was at the heart of Government, alleged that the Prime Minister was not fit to hold high office, the Health Secretary repeatedly lied about the Government’s handling of the pandemic and that Ministers fell disastrously short of the required standards leading to the deaths of tens of thousands who didn’t need to die.

A fast-moving news agenda means that stories can often be on the front page one day and gone the next. Few stories garner such attention, outrage, or intrigue that they occupy the tabloids and broadsheets for weeks on end. However, an early assessment of Wednesday’s evidence suggests that it will rumble on almost ad infinitum and is achieving a phrase all too familiar with those in SW1, cut through. Coronavirus has infiltrated every corner of our lives, and suggestions that the Government were incompetent or worse, negligent, are likely to stick at the back of the public’s mind and could reignite again when an independent enquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic is published.

The PR response

Broadly speaking, Downing Street faces challenges that span trust, transparency and competence. In the face of such a crisis it is incredibly important that Ministers present a united front, focusing on clear and consistent messaging. As the hours pass since Cummings’s appearance, the lack of a public appearance from the Prime Minister becomes increasingly palpable. A pooled broadcast interview to the world’s media is not enough, it doesn’t suggest a Government willing to stand up to public scrutiny and present its own version of events in a transparent and honest manner. 

It is time for the Government to own its mistakes and it must do it with haste. This will naturally not go as far as the Prime Minister admitting to being unfit to hold power, but it is time that Johnson et al communicate that during a time of unprecedent crisis, there are lessons to be learnt.

However, there are also decisions and policies that should be rightly lauded. Whether that be the state safeguarding the jobs of more than 11 million people through the furlough scheme, or the world-leading procurement and rollout of several coronavirus vaccines.

PR lessons for businesses in crisis 

There are very real parallels that businesses can draw from this crisis for the Government.

Firstly, businesses must consider preventative measures. Plan ahead for potential issues and identify them before they escalate. Dominic Cummings is an extreme example, but if businesses can spot potentially disruptive existing and former employees, communications ‘ both internal and external ‘ can be planned in advance to neutralise any negative sentiment and reduce the risk of a public comms crisis such as the one Cummings has inflicted on his former employers. 

Secondly, if a crisis does occur, assess the damage and address it openly and transparently. Generally, most will accept a margin for human error and understand that mistakes can and will be made in business as in politics ‘ especially during such challenging times as a global pandemic. Showing contrition and a desire to learn from mistakes is a key step to redemption and, better yet, providing evidence that those learnings are being put into practice. For example, the Government has been accused of being slow to implement lockdown restrictions in March 2020, which Cummings believes resulted in the loss of lives. Since then, the government has demonstrated a greater degree of caution and respect for the pandemic, with its four-step easing of restrictions separated by five-week gaps.

Thirdly, where possible, try to pivot the messaging towards more positive and future facing topics. If handled tactfully, this can help to move the story on from the crisis and focus attention elsewhere, helping to repair the business’s damaged brand in the eyes of stakeholders. However, this approach should be used in moderation. For example, when questioned about some of Cummings’ allegations directly aimed at him, including that he should resign for 15-20 different offences, Health Secretary Matt Hancock replied: I haven’t seen this performance today in full, and instead I’ve been dealing with getting the vaccination rollout going, especially to over-30s, and saving lives. Including what is arguably overly promotional messaging ‘ although the vaccine programme has been applauded – in response to tough questions can make the spokesperson appear out of touch with the crisis at hand, having an adverse impact on public perception. Instead, businesses are advised to share positive messaging to balance negative sentiment, rather than drown it out completely.

The strain the pandemic has put on society has created cracks in the government and businesses alike, and made them vulnerable to crises. Crucial to surviving these crises is public perception. An effective communication strategy is an essential way to build or re-build trust, especially when facing harsh criticism and public scrutiny. The Dominic Cummings interview and the government’s handling of the allegations made offer important PR lessons. With the economic recovery gathering pace as we emerge from lockdown restrictions, businesses facing similar reputational challenges should heed these lessons.

Hamish Campbell-Shore
Hamish Campbell-Shore

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