The Prime Minister has been absent from the airwaves for a number of days. He has not been seen in wellies at the site of major flooding and he has not made any announcements personally about COVID 19 or Coronavirus. The Guardian for one thinks Boris is neglecting the nation.
The PM’s media silence
I am not in the Westminster bubble, but I can have a good guess why the Prime Minister has not been seen. However, the more interesting question for me and anyone involved in PR is: is this a damaging strategy or will it pay dividends?
Why might Boris Johnson have gone quiet?
Apparently there is a rumour that the PM’s girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, gave him a black eye which is why he is laying low! In the absence of evidence, I will dismiss this. On this occasion, I suspect strategy, not farce.
A more likely explanation is that the Prime Minister is busy doing things he gives a higher priority to. The first hundred days is considered to be the most crucial for setting an administration on a path for success. (Here is a good explanation of this idea from the Harvard Business Review.) It is a time when everything is new, when people expect change and when the momentum and enthusiasm from an election win can help get things done. It is difficult for those of us not in government to understand just how difficult it is to get things done. (I will recommend again Michael Barber’s book How to Run a Government – a very good read on this exact point).
Boris may just be determined not to get distracted by events.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
There may also be some design behind the media purdah, based loosely on ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder, and screw-ups a lot less likely’. Leaders should be strategic in terms of when to make themselves available and when not to. Particularly, as every media outing carries an element of risk. It is certainly true that if Boris Johnson was spending every morning in a TV studio the press would be complaining that he was still campaigning and not paying attention to running the country. Whether the judgement to leave the sympathy and concern for flood victims to George Eustice, and the public pronouncements on a probable pandemic to Matt Hancock, is the right one – only time will tell. At this stage, there is no election to lose. And in five years time he will be judged on many other things.
There is a lesson in this for lesser mortals. That is: it is worth asking if it is in your interests to do all media interviews offered? Can you do too many? I believe, in some cases, too much media attention can work against you. Once you get good at doing media interviews, even as a commentator, you can get a lot of requests. If you say yes to them all you can get a reputation as a ‘rent a mouth’. Someone with an opinion on everything. This can quickly count against you with journalists, devaluing you as an expert commentator. How much is too much is, of course, a finely balanced judgement.
Another related point is that media outings need a bit of time and preparation. If you are doing too many, on too many unrelated subjects you won’t have time to prepare and you will make a mistake or misspeak. We have blogged here about how easy it is to misspeak.
A third reason for turning down a media interview as a leader is to let someone else do it. This can be a chance to let someone else in the team shine. But there is a flip side: if you delegate the media spotlight you can always sack the underling if it goes horribly wrong. I remember the poor Head of Operations at BA being made to do a public statement after the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 went horribly wrong. He was ‘let go’ shortly afterwards. The CEO of BA who had been around to cut the ribbon early in the day was nowhere to be found once the bags started piling up.
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Image of Boris Johnson from Flickr- cc Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE)