The PM’s Xmas hangover – what the Number 10 party scandal tells us about good crisis comms

By Simon Brooke.

Most of us have been to a party at some point in our lives and regretted it afterwards for whatever reason.  However, there can’t be many get-togethers that have caused so much trouble and provoked so much anger and tears as what is widely accepted to have been a party for staff at number 10 Downing Street last December.

In many ways, this is a classic example of how not to manage a crisis or difficult situation.

For a start the story has emerged through leaks and investigations by journalists.  To handle a crisis well you need to get on the front foot right from the start. I always advise comms teams to “Tell it all, tell it quickly and tell it truthfully”.

This involves being proactive (which is challenging) but also transparent (which is very challenging). It’s essential to get the message out there as soon as you can. It also means revealing all the information that you are legally able to reveal. For instance, if you’ve suffered a data breach and a senior person in your IT team emailed their concerns about the issue two months ago then you’ll have to release that email – otherwise, you can bet that it will leak anyway.

Although this might sound counter-intuitive and the senior management team of the organisation might well resist the idea of revealing something unless it’s absolutely necessary, doing so means that you’ll appear transparent and proactive and you’ll take the hit, unpleasant though it might be, in fell one swoop.

This avoids the situation that we see in this case and that so often happens in politics where a drip feed of revelations keeps the story running – and the longer it runs the more deadly it becomes for the careers of those involved. Having worked in political communication myself I’ve seen a story explode because it wasn’t managed quickly enough.

In crisis communications we used to talk about the “golden hour”, this was the period during which an organisation had to get on the front foot with its communications in a crisis or face firefighting and reacting to the agenda rather than setting it throughout the lifecycle of the crisis. These days, given the power of social media, I would argue that that “hour” has contracted to a few minutes.

The government has allowed this story to run for over a week with new revelations emerging. Having worked in political communication myself I’ve seen a story explode because it wasn’t managed quickly enough.

Here’s another problem. There have been mixed messages from the prime minister and other spokespeople. Was it a party? Who attended? Were the rules broken or not? Did the Prime Minister know about it? If so, when? What exactly is he sorry for? There have been different lines on these questions over the last few days.

Not only does this show a lack of direction but it also gives journalists a new angle at regular intervals to keep the story running.

As I advise clients, during a crisis, it’s essential to put across your message as soon as possible and then to stick to it.  Unless the situation changes in a way that’s unpredictable and lies beyond your control you simply can’t change your line halfway through the crisis.  Consider the mess that United Airlines made with their constantly changing communications around the violent eviction of a passenger from one of their flights in 2017.

This was so powerful because it was videoed – an element that also turbo-charged this story, as Allegra Stratton found to her detriment. The smartphone and the emergence of the citizen reporter have also massively increased the stakes in crisis management.

An apology or at least an expression of sympathy is an essential part of almost any crisis communication. You just have to be clear, unlike the situation here, about what you’re apologising for or why you’re offering sympathy and to whom.

It remains to be seen what damage this incident will do to the Prime Minister. However, one thing is certain – his office’s failure to manage this crisis effectively means that this party will leave him with a serious hangover, even though he didn’t even attend it.

Simon Brooke is a senior trainer at Communicate Media.

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