crisis communication lesson for david cameron

Cameron’s Crisis Communication Lesson

Many a good crisis communication lesson is never shared, or the various stages are not so public. But the revelation in the Panama Papers that David Cameron’s father had set up an off-shore fund and that until 2010 the Prime Minister himself had owned shares in that fund, has given us a very public case study. And the crisis communication lesson is that you need to get out in front of the story.

Crisis communication lesson

crisis communication lesson for david cameron

David Cameron has had a difficult week after ignoring basic crisis communication lesson

Crisis communications training always emphasises that you need to release all the bad stuff in one hit, as early as possible. Giving misleading statements or closing down enquiries will increase the damage if the whole story comes out later. And that is just what we saw last week. Here is a detailed blow by blow account of Cameron’s horrid week from The Guardian which is claiming the story as theirs.

Crisis communication lesson: refusing to say anything is a mistake

But the basic facts are that on Monday at a regular press briefing reporters asked Cameron’s official spokeswoman if she was aware that his father had set up an off-shore fund called Blairemore. She responded that this was a ‘private matter’. Unsurprisingly, this did not kill the story.

Crisis communication lesson: being economical with the truth is unlikely to work

On Tuesday, with the story all over the front page of the Guardian and running on all networks, Cameron answered a question with a phrase that can only be described as being economical with the truth.

‘I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that.’

The furore continued. On Wednesday the prime minister’s office said: ‘There are no offshore trusts or funds from which the Prime Minister, Mrs. Cameron or their children will benefit in future.’ It was not enough. The statements clearly referred to now and in the future but did not mention the past. Journalists could smell blood.

By Thursday Downing Street decided the Prime Minister would have to come clean. In an interview with Robert Peston, Political editor of ITV, Cameron explained that he had owned shares in Blairemore from 1997 until 2010, just before he became Prime Minister. When he sold them, he added, he had paid tax on the profits.

On Saturday, David Cameron felt he needed to publish full details of his tax affairs, and then chancellor George Osborne announced he would do the same. Despite considerable efforts to draw a line under the whole thing, as I write the story continues to hit the headlines and the fall out is now spreading to other members of the Tory party. The damage to Cameron, to Osborne and to the Tories is huge.

Crisis communication lesson: deflect, dismiss, deny is not recommended

The question is, had David Cameron come clean on Monday, or even before, would the damage have been less? Accepted wisdom  is yes, that after an initial splurge of coverage the world would have quickly moved on because there was no ‘sport’ in chasing the details. It is hard to be sure, and the truth is that sometimes companies and people do manage to kill a story by obfuscating. But ‘deflect, dismiss, deny’ is not a strategy recommended in any crisis communications training.

 

Here are 13  minutes of Cameron being gently grilled by Robert Peston, the crucial bit is at 3′ 20″. Overall we think Cameron handles this interview very well but the damage was done.

 

 

Photo: the Mirror via Creative Commons

Lindsay Williams

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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