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The Cummings debacle: Is there a communications bright side?

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The media is ablaze right now with what the Government has got wrong with its handling of public health messaging just when it mattered most.

I’ve been asked for my opinion on what could have happened differently, with comments appearing in PR Week, Campaign Live and Tech Register. A swift apology from Dominic Cummings would have been my main recommendation, but even if this happens now it is so late in the day as to be largely meaningless, although it could still help stem some of the public anger and, importantly, help people keep social distancing.

My own view is that this won’t quickly blow over. For people who didn’t get to be with their loved ones when it mattered most, being asked to ‘move on’ is not just insulting – it’s hurtful. Plus, I am sure the Conservative MPs who are currently being ignored by their PM will remember how they weren’t listened to, which may come back to sting Boris in months and years to come.

PR positives

However, away from all the noise and distraction, could there be any positives that come out of the current mess? Possibly, yes. I have outlined these below:

1. More organisations understanding the value of good communications

Public health messaging is currently all over the place. The ‘stay alert’ message wasn’t widely understood, even before the Cummings crisis. Now the police are now reporting that people are saying ‘if Cummings didn’t stay home why should we’? The difference that failing to communicate effectively in a crisis can make is all too apparent. In the worst case scenario, it could even cost lives. So this stands as an excellent example of how not to do it and why having professional communications advice is not just a nice-to-have but an essential.

2. The value of having people who might have a different perspective or view around the table

It’s all too clear that stuffing your top table with yes-men (and very few women) definitely doesn’t lead to better decision-making. Receiving other perspectives and alternative suggestions is not a sign of weakness, but an indicator that you welcome the chance to improve. In fact, failure to hear these opinions could even be an indicator of insecurity. Either way, when the Health Secretary contradicts official public health messaging, it’s very clear that these debates haven’t taken place behind the scene.

3. Do the right thing in a crisis – even late is better than never

If you find yourself in a PR hole, stop digging and work your way out of there. The current Cummings saga is still making news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Eventually something is going to have to give. There’s no point burying your head in the sand and hoping a crisis will blow over and your reputation or company will survive – do something constructive to make a change and get yourself out of there. After all, being the bigger person and apologising will only make a brand seem more authentic.

4. The value of national and regional media in holding people and organisations to account 

There’s a lot of talk about how, in the UK, we are living in a post-truth, post-blame world where the media is an enemy and journalists are not to be trusted. But on the bright side, hopefully in months to come people will have a better understanding of the value of the media in asking difficult questions and helping to shine a spotlight on issues in society that need to be addressed. Journalists and the media have a vital role to play helping bring about positive change. Hopefully, in the Cummings case, they can help bring about an eventual admission that rules were broken, helping restore the public’s faith in Government decision making and the importance of keeping to social distancing guidelines.


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