The story of the UK prime minister’s chief advisor leaving London during the most restrictive phase of lockdown has dominated British headlines in recent days. LSE Associate Professor Lee Edwards, who is programme director for the MSc in Strategic Communications, assesses the government’s communications performance in the face of public fury.
This weekend prompted an unprecedented crisis for the current government: the Prime Minister’s most trusted advisor, Dominic Cummings, was found to have travelled 260 miles to an alternative residence in Durham, North East England, in order to self-isolate with his family while suffering from COVID-19. An effective response from the government is essential, to ensure that the public continue to adhere to public health guidelines.
Crisis management scholarship is replete with advice about how to manage events that threaten an organisation’s reputation. One of the most widely used models, situational crisis communication theory (SCCT), argues that focusing on the attributions of responsibility for a crisis is fundamental to deciding how to respond.
Decisions about how to respond to a crisis are made in light of the reputational challenge posed by the crisis, given the public’s perceptions of the organisation’s responsibility for a given situation. In other words, the theory situates the public as the defining factor in effective crisis responses.
Of course, not all organisations put the public first. Response strategies can include denial or diminishment of the crisis and the organisation’s role in it; or, alternatively, acknowledging the crisis and responsibility for it, and trying to rebuild or bolster the organisation’s reputation through various good works.
The decision about which strategy to use depends in part on whether the organisation wants to change perceptions of its association with the crisis. Such ambitions notwithstanding, the SCCT model indicates that, where there is clear evidence that the organisation is a major actor in the crisis, an apology is the best strategy.
Dominic Cummings’ journey to Durham is a clear example of the latter case. The journey violated both the spirit of the legislation in place at the time, and the singular government message – repeated many times by ministers in the daily briefings – that anyone sick should stay at home to self-isolate. That advice still holds. The public have been vocal about their outrage, and there have been calls for Mr Cummings’ resignation from across the media and political spectrum.
This is a particularly difficult crisis for the Prime Minster to navigate. Mr Cummings’ strategic communications advice is widely credited for the Prime Minister’s success in the Brexit referendum, the subsequent leadership election in the Conservative party, and the 2019 general election. He continues to be indispensable to the PM in government. While others have had to resign for less, losing Mr Cummings would be a major sacrifice.
While organisations and individuals have an instinct for self-preservation, and Prime Ministers perhaps more than most, the result of this powerful dependency has been a woeful crisis response. On Monday 25 May, we watched the remarkable spectacle of Mr Cummings appearing in the Downing Street Rose Garden for a media briefing (an interesting symbolic gesture, given that the garden is rarely used for formal press briefings and has previously hosted Presidents Clinton and Obama). He explained his actions in great detail and was subjected to an hour of media questions. This was, one suspects, a crisis management strategy to clear the air and calm the stormy waves of dissent.
However, Mr Cummings’ appearance did little to restore faith in either the trustworthiness or the integrity of government, and many important questions about his behaviour remained unanswered. In a smoothly delivered, prepared statement, he admitted travelling North, explained his rationale, and gave details about his movements once there. So far, so good – obvious and undeniable faulty behaviour was acknowledged. However, his responses to media questions were frequently hesitant, occasionally flustered and often frustrated. They were also monotonous, only repeating the content of his statement. Asked whether he would apologise, whether there was one rule for the elite and one rule for the rest of us, and whether he regretted his decision, he failed to show any remorse or understanding about the scale of the impact of his actions.
Gaps in logic were multiple – why drive for one hour to test one’s eyesight? Why drive oneself if one feels unwell? Why not call on additional help in London rather than travel 260 miles North? Answers forthcoming were partial, if they were offered at all. Perhaps worst of all, in terms of crisis response strategies, Mr Cummings placed the blame for any anger and misunderstanding of guidelines at the feet of a disingenuous media who communicated many false stories, and a gullible public, who should not believe everything they read or hear. Now that he had explained his reasoning, and the potential for reasonable disagreement notwithstanding, he felt the public – finally in possession of the full facts – would understand.
Yet, his presentation left two curious contradictions in place.
- On the one hand, respect for the public’s intelligence is due, since they will be ‘reasonable’ once they know the truth about his situation; on the other, they can’t be trusted because they are too easily misled by fake news. The idea of a gullible audience echoes an almost century-old Bernaysian idea of a public unable to make their own decisions and in need of strong guidance from above, to curb their unruly instincts. The idea is almost ridiculous in an age of social media, where plentiful evidence suggests that the public conduct their own research about the veracity of news and gather perspectives from multiple sources before making up their minds.
- On the one hand, the public’s anger and frustration is understandable; on the other, they are entitled only to a partial response that relies on the presentation of Mr Cummings as a father and husband man, motivated by the need to protect his family above all else. His significance as a public figure, a very senior member of government, and the architect of the policy whose spirit he subsequently violated, is erased from the picture – despite the fact that it is precisely these facts that generate public anger in the first place.
The net result of his appearance is that the response to the crisis, which should theoretically have prompted an immediate apology, has only exacerbated the sense that the public are being taken for a ride and that those occupying the highest echelons of power in government remain unaccountable for their actions. Indeed, the Prime Minister was forced to express regret on Mr Cummings’ behalf during the daily briefing, yet repeatedly argued that the public can now ‘make up their own minds’ about Mr Cummings – thereby side-stepping any responsibility for his behaviour, or for sanctions that might be implemented.
Of course, Mr Cummings is not the first government spin doctor to be criticised for being too powerful, and he won’t be the last. It remains to be seen how significant the crisis is for this government, and how long Mr Cummings will survive. But from a communications professional supposedly at the height of his game, it is at the very least, a disappointing episode. For those of us who believe strategic communication should be a positive force at the heart of democracy, it is almost heart-breaking.
This article represents the views of the author and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.