What can we learn about crisis comms from ‘beergate’?

Another week, and yet more stories about what politicians got up to when covid restrictions were in place.

Whether Labour leader Keir Starmer having a beer and eating curry with colleagues is as bad as some of the events in Downing Street is for others to decide.

But the way the story has been handled provides some crisis communication lessons.

Let’s start with a little recap.

After months of focus on the parties that took place at No10 at various stages of lockdowns, Sir Keir has now found himself facing allegations of rule-breaking. And, having led the criticism of what happened under Boris Johnson’s watch, claims of hypocrisy.

It centres on what happened in Durham in April last year.

The Labour leader said he was working and took a break from ‘legitimate campaigning activity’ to eat when he was filmed having a drink at a time when rules banned household mixing indoors, apart from working.

Durham Police are investigating the event - for a second time - and whether it was pre-planned or, as his party has claimed, was arranged on the night.

For now though at least, the focus, particularly that of the media, has shifted from ‘partygate’ to ‘beergate’.

And as much as I like beer, anything ending in  ‘gate’ tends to be bad news for those involved.

 

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It means the Labour party finds itself on the back foot over an issue it had been attacking the government on.

Over the weekend, there were a series of reports on what had taken place, including leaked itineraries from the day in question.

Yesterday – and this is where the crisis communication part kicks in – we learnt that Sir Keir had pulled out of a keynote speech he was due to give about “the challenges the country faces” at the Institute of Government. The event was reportedly due to include a Q&A with journalists.

I initially heard about this from a former colleague who messaged me saying: “Labour cancelling Starmer making a speech doesn’t give an air of ‘it’s all fine – we can manage this’.

“It is like how not to manage a crisis.”

I hate to admit it, mainly because he will be reading this, but it is hard to argue with his verdict.

It is like an organisation refusing to put anyone up for interview during a crisis – it suggests they are worried about facing challenging questions and scrutiny. Or they are concerned about their spokesperson staying ‘on message’.

Either way, the optics are not good, particularly when no reason or explanation is put forward for the cancellation.  

In this case, it allowed the Daily May to claim the politician was “running scared.”

We should perhaps not be surprised by that attack from a paper with right-wing leadings.

But that narrative has put some of his colleagues in a difficult position during interviews they gave.

When asked about the scrapped speech during an appearance on BBC Breakfast, Wes Streeting said: “I have no idea why he cancelled the event, and I certainly didn’t ask before I came on because I think it’s such a trivial issue.

“The idea that Keir has been dodging questions… I mean he’s been out all weekend, even after a local election campaign where we did very well, he’s been out thanking Labour teams, particularly in the places that we did particularly well in these elections.”

He added: “The idea that Keir is somehow ducking scrutiny is simply not true.”

But people and organisations in the firing line tend to be judged by their last performance. If you give interviews over the weekend but then pull out of a speech the following day as the story develops, the narrative will be set by what you didn’t say rather than what you did.   

And that ‘running scared’ impression hasn’t been helped by the leader ignoring journalist question’s as he left home on Sunday morning.

We’ve mentioned doorstep interviews many times in our media training and crisis communication training blogs.

Of course, no one wants to be greeted by a pack of reporters outside their house. It is natural to feel underprepared and worry you might be caught off guard.

But the general rule with doorstep interviews is that if you say nothing or react angrily, reporters will assume you have something to hide and the crisis media management situation can quickly escalate.

It is also worth saying that as the story first started to break, there was a refusal to answer basic questions, such as whether police had spoken to the politician. That refusal to face the story led to more and more material being gradually leaked. 

Later yesterday, Sir Keir gave a statement, where he promised to resign if fined - a high-risk political roll of the dice aimed at drawing a distinction between him and the Prime Minister.

He said: “I simply had something to eat while working late in the evening, as any politician would do days before an election, but if the police decide to issue me with a fixed penalty notice, I would, of course, do the right thing and step down.

“This matters. It matters because the British public deserve politicians who think the rules apply to them.

“They deserve politicians who hold themselves to the highest standards.

“And they deserve politicians who put the country first rather than themselves. They will always get that from me.”

That’s a good statement. And he went on to take questions - albeit from just three journalists, which hinted at an attempt to control the questions.

But why take so long to say this and let others control the narrative before getting to this point?

You need to move much faster when in the spotlight and avoid periods when you are not communicating. 

The crisis communication learning for others is clear here.

How you handle an incident and the scrutiny will impact how you are perceived.

As tempting as it may seem, don’t batten down the hatches and hope the attention goes away. It won’t.

Act quickly. Face up to the scrutiny, whether it comes from journalists, internal audiences or stakeholders.

And trust your spokespeople to say the right thing. If they have had media and crisis communication training, they should be able to handle awkward questions.

 

Find out more about our crisis communication training and crisis management training. Crisis communication is also covered through the masterclasses on our year-long learning a development programme. Find out more about what The Media Team Academy covers.

 

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