UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments, that if re-elected in May he would not seek a third term in office in five years time, is the lead story in all the main British newspapers today and on radio and television. It was definitely a scoop for BBC’s James Landale who was conducting a ‘cosy’ behind the scenes interview in the PM’s kitchen at the time.
There are plenty of voices suggesting the Prime Minister should not have answered a question about his long-term plans so honestly. In doing so, the argument goes, he has fired the starting pistol for the next Tory leadership race, especially as he went on to name three possible successors. And he has distracted from May’s election.
For myself, this kind of political reporting is tedious in the extreme and with a complicated election on the horizon, serious economic issues at hand, not to mention plenty of international crises to talk about, I would question whether it should be a lead story. But I certainly realised as soon as I heard the comment that we were in for a media frenzy. It was predictable.
For students of PR, there is one salient lesson here. Just because something is true does not mean it is a good idea to say it to a journalist. Media training is in part about sensitizing people to issues which are commonplace, even obvious in one context but, out of context, give the journalist a story that is either damaging or distracting. Former BP CEO, Tony Hayward’s comment ‘I want my life back’ springs to mind. He wasn’t saying anything we couldn’t have guessed but saying it made a huge story.
Assuming Cameron did not plan to make this announcement about ‘no third term’ his PR team will have been wringing their hands because they lost control of the news cycle. They would not have been prepared for this media frenzy, the lines would not have been in place and they will have had to rush around to find Tory Grandees to wheel out and explain that the Prime Minister was not being disrespectful to the electorate, was not assuming he would win the next election, and is indeed focused on the next election and not his personal future. And, of course, while the media is talking about Cameron’s ‘blunder’ they are not talking about whatever it was the election machine had in mind for these two days.
All this ‘damage’ because the Prime Minister truthfully answered a question put to him. The lesson is that in all interviews one has to be disciplined. Relaxing into a chat with a journalist is a recipe for an unexpected headline.
However, just to be mischievous, it is worth remembering that David Cameron was a PR man and he has been Prime Minister for almost 5 years. He knows how the British media works. So actually perhaps it wasn’t a blunder at all. Perhaps he wanted a 24-hour news-fest that constantly repeats the possible assumption that the next election is a forgone conclusion. I am not sure this has been damaging for Cameron at all. It may, in fact, have been a PR coup.