What Labour's Livingstone calamity teaches us about media management

Last month, Labour's National ­Executive Committee appointed Ken Livingstone as co-convener of the party's policy commission on defence. What followed is a perfect case study on the importance of good media management in a 24-hour news cycle, writes Dylan Sharpe.

Sharpe: Sun PR man
Sharpe: Sun PR man

Control the announcement

The announcement of an appointee is ­critical in setting the tone of the hire. Whether you wish to make a lot of noise or bury it, the way the news hits the media requires delicate handling.

Recall George Osborne’s announcement of Andrew Adonis as chairman of the ­National Infrastructure Commission. Carefully managed and expertly timed for the Monday of Conservative Party ­Conference.

Livingstone’s announcement, by contrast, seemingly slipped out unmanaged while the former Mayor of London was on stage at an event held by the ‘Left Book Club’. The New Statesman’s political editor George Eaton revealed the news on ­Twitter, various lobby journalists then called Labour HQ for confirmation, and by the morning it had made a few newspapers’ second editions, with no accompanying quotes or any briefing on the exact ­nature of the role.

Square off your own side

As a result of such a messy first disclosure, several people within the Labour Party who ought to have been informed had not been prior to the news going public.

Nobody, let alone an MP or shadow ­minister, wants to hear news for the first time from a journalist calling for ­comment. If that news affects their job or might cause upset the most likely outcome is a quote that then reflects their displeasure. Managing your own team can be as crucial as managing the appointee in the early stages of an announcement.

So it was that the shadow defence ­minister Kevan Jones, on learning that Livingstone had been appointed over his head to lead a defence review, queried ­Livingstone’s suitability for the role. In ­response the former mayor lashed out and a Labour Party crisis had been born.

Stick to a co-ordinated response

A bad quote can almost always be walked back. There are a million excuses for ­saying the wrong thing and, provided your apology is coherent, sincere and stuck to rigidly, the embarrassment will be short-term and little more than a line on your ­Wikipedia page.

To achieve this outcome everyone needs to be ‘singing off the same hymn sheet’ – but especially the leader’s office and the appointee. Jeremy Corbyn, probably deep in preparation for PMQs, put out a statement calling on Livingstone to apologise.

Manage the media appearances

It should go without saying that an ­appointee needs to direct all media ­requests through a press office. It should also be taken as read that once a full and frank apology has been delivered, as ­Livingstone was eventually forced to do on Twitter, all media requests ought to be turned down to ensure that the apology is the last word on the matter.

Bafflingly to all who had watched this political melodrama unfold during the day, just four hours after his begrudgingly apologetic tweets Livingstone was back on TV. To further compound Labour’s misery, he was even facing off with Jones and ­employing the same non-apology he had used before the Twitter intervention.

Controlling announcements is not the ‘old politics’; it’s an essential part of keeping your own side happy, ensuring your ­message gets to the voters unblemished, and preventing the sort of crisis that subsumed Labour. The sooner Corbyn and his team wake up to this reality the better it will be for the Labour Party.

Dylan Sharpe is head of PR at The Sun

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