6 crisis media management lessons from the Cummings saga

Everyone seems to have had their say on Dominic Cummings and his infamous trip to Durham.

It has dominated the news agenda for much of the past week.

Of course, it is not for us as a communication training company to comment on the rights or wrongs of his actions.

But we believe there are clear crisis communication lessons that can be learnt from this story that organisations can use to manage their time in the media spotlight.

 

Act quickly

The golden rule of crisis media management is that you have to act fast to gain some control of the story and get your message across.

By crisis communications standards, Mr Cummings and the Government moved with all the pace of a snail.

His press conference came on day four of the news cycle – a lifetime in crisis media management terms.

If he was going to speak, he really should have done so on the Saturday (23 May), the day the story was printed on the front pages of The Guardian and The Mirror, instead of allowing speculation and anger to grow.

Mr Cummings and the Government had become aware of the story the day before, so that would have given him plenty of time to prepare what he was going to say. They could have even decided to break the story themselves rather than being reactive.

Key lesson: The lesson here for organisations is that when crisis strikes you must start communicating quickly. Don’t allow speculation, rumour and anger to fill the void.  

 

Apologise

Would an apology have made the story go away?

It would still have been given plenty of coverage – Mr Cummings is, after all, the man behind some of the lockdown rules we have all been living by for the past few months.

But there is a strong argument that there would have been less anger if he had said sorry - at the start of the story - and shown some humility.

Of course, he clearly believes that he didn’t do anything wrong.

But he could have said something like: “I thought I was doing the right thing at the time, but I can see how those actions look to others and I can understand why people are angry and frustrated. And I am sorry for the upset I have caused.”

Key lesson: When crisis strikes, people want to know that individuals and organisations care about their actions and take responsibility for them. An early, sincere apology is a key part of achieving that.

 

Don’t cause further embarrassment

One of the most memorable parts of Mr Cummings' Downing Street press conference was his claim that while staying in Durham he had made a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight ahead of the journey back to London.

It was a line that was to cause further embarrassment, online ridicule and complications.  

Police chiefs and road safety experts lined up to urge people not to test their vision behind the wheel – with the Daily Star (not a newspaper we typically quote) running the memorable front-page headline ‘Cops: Don’t drive if you are blind – shock new advice for Britain’s ruling elite’.

 

The Prime Minister’s adviser was also the butt of jokes and memes on social media channels.

And government ministers were put in the uncomfortable position of defending his actions, which saw Michael Gove admit, during an interview with LBC, that he had also taken drives to test his eyesight.

Key lesson: practice and test your messaging with a trusted external adviser – preferable a journalist trainer - who can spot potentially embarrassing rabbit holes that you could accidentally fall into.

 

Doorstep interviews

No-one wants to see huge numbers of journalists and cameramen outside their home, particularly when they have young children in the house.

And there is the argument that this media scrum was also breaking the social distancing rules it was trying to report on.

But doorstep interviews happen during crisis incidents.

And there are far better ways of dealing with them than telling reporters “who cares about good looks” in response to a question about his actions.

Key lesson: The best approach in any doorstep interview is to be polite, say something brief that moves the story on a little and then promise to come back with more information soon – not two days later.

 

Don’t gag your spokespeople

The Cummings story was one that would not go away and continued to dominate the Downing Street press conferences during the week.

When Boris Johnson announced an easing of lockdown measures on Thursday, flanked by Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, he tried to prevent journalists from asking questions to his advisers about Mr Cummings actions.

The Prime Minister said that he wanted to “protect them from what I think would be an unfair and unnecessary attempt to ask any political questions”.

It was not a good look – far removed from the transparency organisations should be striving to achieve when managing a crisis - and led to accusations that the advisors had been gagged.

A much better approach would have been to trust his advisors and their media experience to avoid saying something they may later regret.

When the question was asked for a third time, the advisors said that they didn’t want to get pulled in to politics.

If they had been allowed to say that at the start and then used the bridging technique to move back to a key message they wanted to get across, the Government may have avoided another round of damaging headlines.

Johnson blocks top scientists from talking about Cummings Guardian

Boris stops chief scientist and medical officer answering Cummings question Metro

Coronavirus: Boris Johnson stops Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance answering questions on Dominic Cummings Sky News

Key lesson: Trust your media spokespeople to handle difficult, awkward questions and use their media training techniques to steer the conversation to safer ground.

 

Press conference setting

The Government has been keen to play down the story, but the decision to hold the press conference at Downing Street appeared to give it greater significance.   

The Daily Telegraph called it ‘an extraordinary hour in the rose garden’ and it is certainly unusual for an adviser to hold a press conference about their own actions in this setting.

It may have been a matter of logistics and maintaining social-distancing while meeting the media demand.

But instead of ‘moving along’, as the government wanted us to do, much of the nation was instead gripped by a press conference about the subject from its own garden.

Was a press conference needed?

Well, one of the main reasons to have one is to gain control of a story, but as we have already argued, four days in is far too late for that.

If proper responses had been issued earlier, it may not have been needed at all.

If you do have one, don’t allow them to run for long periods. Mr Cummings was in the spotlight for an hour and it felt at times he was a sitting duck for increasingly hostile questions.

Key lessons: If you hold a press conference, ensure it is properly managed by members of the comms team. This includes managing media expectations about how long a spokesperson will be available.

 

Find out more about our training by videoconference options, including media training crisis mead management, presentation skills and media management.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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