How to choose the right spokesperson in a crisis

Downing Street

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson fights to save his political career, our CEO Melissa Davis looks at the continual flaws in the government’s crisis response.

A few days after Downing Street’s party problems became serious, I wrote about ‘party-gate’ as a PR crisis for the government. Boris Johnson’s problems would continue, and be added to, I felt, if no-one in Downing Street could apply a crisis PR plan.

A look at the element of that plan, and how far Downing Street was operating off plan, help explain why it cannot close the plan down. Not least by deciding against full disclosure, paired with Johnson’s apology, they are not in control of events.

A central spokesperson

This week we have had another example of the cost of Downing Street wandering from good advice.

‘There needs to be a central point of contact with the press and the public,’ I wrote in December. Well, there often appears to be none.

Chris Whitty, as chief medical officer, may be the face of Covid briefings. But party-gate has no single, consistent spokesperson.

Because of the crisis’ mismanagement (or lack of), some days senior figures are thin on the ground – seeming to reluctantly take it in turns to risk being quizzed on this subject.

Boris’s cake ‘ambush’ is no surprise

But in the absence of a reliable, central figure, colleagues you might not choose step up thinking they are being helpful.

Enter Conor Burns MP, Northern Ireland minister, with an (I assume) improvised defence of the PM’s birthday party. ‘He was, in a sense, ambushed by cake,’ Conor suggested.

The effect of this remark has been extensive ridicule of the PM (with little mention of Burns himself).

There are small flurries of Downing Street trying to grip this crisis. You saw it in Johnson’s carefully rehearsed apology to the Commons. The rest of PMQs that day saw the PM deploy a studied contrition – appropriately subdued.

But who, of anyone you know, can quote from Johnson’s apology? Many, many more can (and continue to) quote the line ‘ambushed by cake’. Burns presented as unrehearsed and unreliable – and this week he is the face of the crisis – yet hasn’t taken any of the heat away from the PM.

Crisis lesson this week

  • Choose the right spokesperson to keep your message consistent.
  • Ensure they have the training to know how to talk with the media so you can maintain quality control.
  • Always select someone who can communicate empathy.

If you need any help with a crisis or need training for your spokesperson, please drop us a line.

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