Last week, we learned that the government doesn’t understand crisis communications.
The Daily Telegraph’s reporters had discovered potentially embarrassing details of Maria Miller MP’s expenses. The response of Ms Miller’s office? Her special adviser allegedly told one of the reporters that: “Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about”.
The Telegraph, reasonably, took that to be a threat: don’t print the story or we’ll regulate the hell out of you. The government denies that this was the intention of the words used.
The adviser then rang the newspaper group’s head of public affairs to complain.
The result of all this? The story was not dropped, and the special adviser’s actions were reported as well.
In Westminster, this sort of “Thick of It” approach is too common – and it backfires.
The quality end of public relations industry has decades of knowledge about dealing with a crisis. For example, in the 1930s, A. H. Wiggin, Chairman of the Chase National Bank, ordered Ivy Lee, the founder of modern public relations, to get a newspaper to kill a story. “I won’t do anything of the sort,” Lee replied. His advice, instead, was to issue a statement so that their side of the story would be aired.
But in Westminster, so much of the PR machine is amateur. It believes that spin and bully tactics will work. These carry on because Westminster is short-term, but it damages the public’s faith in politics and leaves politicians with reputations that are tarnished.