Badly handled, but will it be fatal? PR and politics respond to David Cameron Panama tax furore

PR chiefs, politicians and media commentators have firmly criticised David Cameron's handling of revelations that he did benefit from an offshore fund in Panama, although opinions are divided as to the wider impact on his political career.

In an interview with ITV News political editor Robert Peston, broadcast yesterday evening, Cameron admitted he and his wife had sold shares of more than £30,000 in an offshore fund set up in Panama by his late father.

On Tuesday, Cameron said: "I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that. And, so that, I think, is a very clear description." His press team had earlier called it a "private matter" the day before.

The story is on the front page of all UK national newspapers – aside from the Daily Star – although in The Sun it is only given a small slot, with a four-word headline and 24 words of text.

The Times points out that Cameron’s admission came "at the fifth time of asking". The FT said the revelation came "after days of semi-denials and artfully crafted statements", writing: "The admission on ITV News was an awkward moment for Mr Cameron, whose slowly evolving response to the Panama Papers had led Labour to claim he had something to hide."

Meanwhile, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson accused Cameron of "hypocrisy", and Conservative Lord Ashcroft gave this scathing response:

This is how PR professionals have responded, when asked by PRWeek:

Jon McLeod, chairman of corporate, financial, public affairs, Weber Shandwick

"Cameron is first and foremost a PR man of his generation – one whose overwhelming focus was on controlling the following morning’s headlines. Hence the slow reveal of the truth in this case. That was a bad idea for two reasons. Firstly, as any dental patient knows, if you’re pulling out a tooth, it’s best done quickly, not by slow extraction. Secondly, the drip-drip release of information not only heightened the buzz on political social media, it also set the stage for a bigger bang when the news finally fell out. Rightly or wrongly, it looks like he covered up at first – and that’s been a bad look since Watergate.

"Choosing Peston was an odd one. His brand of journalism has been built on the big exclusive – usually about financial calamity – so I am not clear how positioning oneself alongside that context works.

"He [Cameron] has been hurt but nowhere near fatally. Cameron is banking on short attention spans to see himself through this one and he may well be right to do so."

Gill Morris, CEO, Connect Communications

"Cameron is rattled and looks increasingly vulnerable. The 'private matter' line was doomed and was never going to close the story down, and the opposite has happened.

"Cameron does look like a posh version of Derek Trotter with his 'no income tax, no VAT', and while it's not Pig Gate, it does resonate with people on the street who struggle to make ends meet and have never been in the privileged position of profiteering by avoiding tax.

"Clearly the Tory leadership contest will happen sooner rather than later and while the Panama Papers may be just another nail in Cameron's legacy, a Brexit vote will be his death knell."

John Higginson, head of corporate comms, Insight Consulting Group

"What these revelations show is that refusing to comment is usually the worst possible option, because it is human nature to jump to the worst conclusion when someone appears to be hiding something.

"The reticence to explain the situation looked awful at first but his explanation actually shows a man defending a dead father who cannot answer for himself. We find that David Cameron himself paid full UK tax on the relatively small amount of money he had invested. The way he did it in a TV interview was absolutely the right way to do it. We can see his face, which increases trust.

"The revelations will not speed up his departure. In fact to a degree they do the opposite - we think better of him. We elected him with full knowledge of his privileged upbringing. Even if his father did set up the fund to help his clients legally minimise their taxes, we British are very just, we do not punish the children for the actions of their parents."

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