Cummings, Leadership & Crisis Communications

May 27, 2020

As a few of my recent LinkedIn posts indicate, I’m aghast at the UK government’s inept Covid-19 response and the post-Lockdown communications strategy accompanying it. I’d like to write a blog about everything they’re doing wrong and why it’s wrong, but that would be entirely self-serving and a waste of everyone’s time.

Instead, in light of the Dominic Cummings debacle / shit-show that has dominated the news – and many a conversation I had last weekend – here’s a blog about leadership and crisis communications.

The cornerstone of every relationship, whether it’s personal or professional, is bilateral trust, which is why I have always believed in leading by example. I can be a complete pain in the arse to work with – as anyone I’ve ever worked with will tell you – but I’m equally easy to work with: I’m fair; we have clear goals and the goalposts don’t move without discussion; I’ll invariably be the last to close my laptop when we’re preparing for a big meeting or pitch; I won’t ask anyone to do anything I’m not prepared to do myself (like make tea, or photocopy). I will know the minutiae of detail, to deal with issues before they blow up and to have my team's back.

As a leader, you have to walk the walk; your attitude has to be ‘Do as I do’ because half-hearted measures like ‘Do as I say’ will breed contempt and scorn.  

Regardless of whether Cummings did 'what any father would do,' he didn’t do as he said.

Cummings burnished his credentials as the chief architect of Brexit and has lapped up the glory of the Leave victory. He used that success to become the government’s chief strategist, thrusting himself into the limelight and making his actions of public interest. He was intrinsic to the creation of ‘Stay At Home. Protect The NHS. Save Lives.’ and he didn’t stay at home.

The strength of that initial campaign was its clarity. It was brilliantly instructive and unequivocal. So much that people – from the Police to your typical Nosey Neighbour were totalitarian in their interpretation. You couldn’t go out in your car ‘because you might have a crash / cause a pile-up and need the Emergency Services – and put additional strain on the NHS.’ You couldn’t even drive your car a mile into the country to take your dog for a decent walk – if you did, you might get stopped by the police and fined. Unless – it seems – you’re Dominic Cummings.

Regardless of any class bias that’s invoked, driving 260 miles to get to the family estate doesn’t feel right. Instinctively, intuitively: it feels wrong. It feels indefensible.

Now, what should have happened on Friday is that he should have been forced to eat humble pie. Downing Street’s director of communications should have swept in with a plan to kill the story within 24 hours. Clearly, that didn’t happen. What has happened is remarkable, dystopian and absurd.

In the first instance, which we’ll call Mistake 1, the Prime Minister (i.e. CEO) and Cabinet Ministers (board of directors) were trotted out in succession over Friday and Saturday to defend Cummings. That would have been OK had they been briefed properly, were able answer questions in detail, and form convincing arguments to support Cummings’ actions. They weren’t briefed, they sounded like idiots, and they undermined their own credibility.

Tip 1: always brief the spokespeople to the nth degree / never be strong-armed into an interview you’re not prepared for.

Mistake 2: Cummings statement to media ‘Who cares if it looks good? It’s about doing the right thing.’ In a crisis, you never make the excuse ‘we did right thing’. It’s polarising and fuels endless debate about what’s ‘right’ and what’s ‘wrong’. Four days later: we are still discussing whether what he did was right. And no matter how many Cabinet ministers are trotted out, nor how many times we hear ‘He did the right thing,’ the majority of us feel he didn’t because the message was ‘Stay At Home’ and we dutifully did just that. And our lives have suffered because of it.

Tip 2: ‘do as I say’ is the key learning here but, if you do get caught out, take the heat out of the situation ASAP. Be humble; say you are taking the matter seriously and investigating; apologise for something – even apologising for the way something looks will help (and should help you circumnavigate lawyers advising ‘Don’t admit fault / responsibility. Don’t apologise.’) Regardless of the situation, an upfront apology puts you on front foot and shows you have empathy.

Mistake 3: Cummings went on to say to journalists ‘It’s not about what you guys think.’ You should never tell a journalist / the media their opinion is irrelevant or meaningless. It’s a home goal, it’s antagonistic, it’s downright stupid. The media exists, in part, to hold the government, corporations and people to account. That’s what they do. We work with them, not against them. This comment was utter arrogance: nothing more; nothing less.

Tip 3: cooperate and collaborate with the media (and all of your stakeholders) because we catch far more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Mistake 4: if your strategy is to paint yourself as a caring father and husband who acts on instinct to protect his family, it’s not a good idea to say you drove 30 miles – with them in the car – to test your eyesight. Instinctively, the last thing you’d do to test your eyesight is drive a car – especially with your loved ones in it. It sounds like a lie because it almost certainly is a lie. And if it’s true, it makes him socially irresponsible and a terrible parent.

Tip 4: don’t lie. Truth is subjective and relative, not universal and absolute; there are many truths in any situation. Find a truth that is believable, enhances your reputation, and can’t be disproven. Making up stuff or giving explanations that sound absurd undermines any credibility you may have left.

Mistake 5: the reputation of the company / organisation / institution comes first. Every time, without fail. This is a prime example of the tail wagging the dog. I’ll avoid speculating as to why the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are throwing their weight and reputations behind Cummings, but this should not be happening. This story has dominated the news agenda for five days. It has further tarnished the Government’s reputation – at a time when there are end-of-lockdown stories to disseminate. Between Friday and yesterday (Tuesday), Boris Johnson’s approval rating dived by 20 points, to -1; the Government’s approval rating has dropped 16 points to -2. A junior minister has resigned because he can’t look his constituents in the face and support Cummings’ actions. One, unelected man’s actions are wreaking havoc on an entire political party and government.

Tip 5: in a situation like this, when the actions of one person is damaging your organisation’s reputation and ability to perform its business, that person has to go. Without hesitation, that person needs to be suspended or dismissed, at least until the furore calms down. Cut the cord. Cut ties. Set him/her adrift. Save the corporate reputation.

People are not stupid. Treating them as fools is contemptuous. On 23 and 26 May, YouGov conducted and published polls – the day the Cummings story broke and the after Cummings’ press conference. They found, on 26th May, that 71 per cent of British public believe Cummings broke the lockdown rules – up from 68 per cent on the 23rd; 59 per cent think he should resign, up from 52 per cent on the 23rd.

More importantly, yesterday’s poll found that 70 per cent think it will be harder for the government to get future lockdown messaging across to the public.

The current government-Cummings strategy is making the situation worse, and only 33 per cent believe Cummings is being treated unfairly by the media.

This self-made crisis will not go away until Cummings has been sacked or resigns.

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