David Cameron gave a textbook crisis management press conference this afternoon.
Faced with severe floods in the south-west of the UK, ministers and technocrats falling over one another to pin the blame on anyone but themselves, and angry members of the public, he called his first Downing Street press conference for 238 days.
Cameron has learnt his lessons from the phone-hacking scandal and has become better at appearing masterful in an emergency.
Here are five things he did which could serve as a checklist to others who might need to show leadership in a crisis.
1. Cancel any plans (i.e. a forthcoming trip to the Middle East in Cameron’s case) to show actions speak louder than words and that nothing is more important than fighting the floods.
2. Say: ‘Nothing is more important than fighting the floods’ during the press conference (in case people didn’t get that you were taking it seriously).
3. Start the press conference with what you can say: in this case with the numbers of homes that have been flooded and then onto what’s being done to tackle the problem. So for example, we learned that by the end of Tuesday, 1,600 servicemen and women will have been deployed around the country with many more on call. This kind of approach is valuable because it feeds the media and social media voids, as well as making the speaker look and sound in control. It also allows you to do a lot of talking upfront which puts you on the offensive rather than defensive with the journalists.
4. Keep your soundbites clear and simple. To shamelessly borrow from Tony Blair: ‘Now is not the time for soundbites.’ So from Cameron, we got: ‘Things may well get worse before they get better’ and ‘Money is no object’.
5. Refuse to be drawn on politics (internal or external). Cameron did not commit to questions about squabbling ministers or questions about whether climate change was the cause of the flooding. Instead, he focused on what the Government was doing to manage the crisis and that it was evident the extreme weather was a problem.
I expect the journalists will be all over the press conference looking for signs of inconsistency or sensationalism. But from a media trainer’s perspective, this was disciplined, clear and a job well done.