A crisis within a crisis – what we can learn from the Cummings story

Dominic Cummings

Zafar Jamati, head of content at Stone Junction, explains why building an ethical media strategy may have mitigated the political fallout and public anger we saw from the Cummings story, and what the industry can learn from it.

Many a PR will have been glued to their phone screens over the bank holiday weekend, watching the Cummings story unfold on Twitter — myself included.

At the same time, many of us will have been reluctant to get involved, or post anything on social media. This is partly because there is a small child at the heart of the story, but also due to the fear of overstepping the boundaries of bipartisanship. After all, we represent clients from across the political spectrum and understand that we must prioritise their best interests.

One takeaway from this weekend’s story is the importance of building an ethical PR strategy. Whether you’re registered with the CIPR or PRCA, communications practitioners must abide by a code of conduct that, in part, emphasises, “professional endeavour, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety and personal conduct”.

However, ethics aren’t just about the niceties of life, they can also be the difference between a PR disaster and a crisis managed.

In recent years, some prime ministers, as well as the Royal Family, have chosen to rise above media speculation during times of crisis using the “silence is golden” or “strategic silence” approach. This is defined as “a lack of communication from an organisation or its failure to provide clear and adequate responses to questions or concerns raised”.

While staying silent may work when there are legal implications to speaking out, or when the information on hand is insufficient, the problem is that it creates an information vacuum. Remember, the conversation will happen whether you’re a part of it or not.

Far from showing weakness, being honest and upfront can actually tie into an ethical strategy that brings the crisis to an end far quicker. Whatever you think of his politics, Alastair Campbell’s seven-day news cycle, developed under New Labour, saw the opposite approach, that of the “rapid rebuttal” or “rapid response” strategy.

According to an article in The Independent at the time, Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997 was, in part, a result of the rapid rebuttal strategy: “headquarters provided a rapid rebuttal unit which responded instantly to any new Conservative claim. Its liaison with the media was slick, feeding out approved messages and effectively emasculating attempts to undercut the official version of events. Its use of pagers, the internet and faxes helped keep its candidates consistently on message”.

In an article called spin and scandal, The Guardian explained in 2007 that, “As in opposition, [Labour’s] high command tried to keep to a [seven-day] grid of media announcements, parcelling out releases to fit the government’s narrative. The grid, held at Downing Street, metered out policy, controlling the agenda.” A difference between then and now is that the daily news cycle has evolved to become 24/7.

Perhaps there would have been less political fallout and public anger had Cummings and his team offered a detailed rapid rebuttal just hours, rather than days, after the story broke at the start of a long bank holiday weekend. This is a time when the public is captive in their own homes, hanging on every news story and new piece of content, especially those related to COVID-19.

After all, there was no second trip, as was reported originally, but a part of the same trip that involved going for a drive to test his eyesight.

Not getting the strategy right can also erode trust in PR and in journalists. Using well-timed PR tactics, and keeping the media on-side will not only ensure the freedom of the press to push for accountability, it will also ensure that your message is prompt and unambiguous.

Whatever the merits of this story, we are still in the midst of a public health crisis, so remember to take precautions, follow government guidance and stay safe. And if you find yourself glued to your phone screen, get outside and take a walk. Just don’t drive to Barnard Castle to do it.