Out of her depth, error-prone... but far from terminal? PR pros react to Andrea Leadsom 'mothergate' row

Andrea Leadsom's "error-prone" handling of this weekend's 'mothergate' episode has been criticised sharply by PR professionals, although some argue her 'straight talking' approach could be a benefit ahead of the Conservative Party leadership election.

Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom: Contesting the Tory leadership
Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom: Contesting the Tory leadership

Update: Leadsom announced her withdrawal from the leadership contest shortly after the publication of this story, saying she wished May "the very greatest success".

In an interview with The Times published on Saturday, Leadsom suggested that being a mother made her a better choice for Prime Minister than leadership rival Theresa May, who does not have children, because it meant that she had "a very real stake" in the future of Britain.

The comments were the subject of discussion on Twitter and in news media on Friday evening after the regular release of the next day's newspaper front pages.

Leadsom quickly hit back at the article by Rachel Sylvester, labelling it "appalling" and saying it did not reflect what she said.

The Times later released a transcript of the interview and published the audio on its website.

In a subsequent interview with The Telegraph, Leadsom said she apologised to May for her comments, adding that motherhood should not play a part in the leadership campaign and deeply regretted "that anyone has got the impression that I think otherwise". She also said she felt "under attack, under enormous pressure".

The incident comes ahead of the final vote by Conservative Party members about whether Leadsom or May should be the next party leader – and Prime Minister – taking place on 9 September.

PR and public affairs professionals have been quick to criticise the actions of Leadsom, the pro-Brexit energy minister who is being advised by Margaret Thatcher’s former PR chief Tim Bell.

Rob Brown, managing partner at Rule 5 and president of the CIPR, said: "From a PR perspective, Andrea Leadsom made a whole series of errors. She denied she said something that was on tape, she demanded that a national newspaper retract an accurate story and she claimed that she believed the comments were 'off the record', when she clearly didn't agree that in advance.

"Her subsequent apology to her rival Theresa May is an acknowledgement that she accepts that she actually did bring the issue of parenthood into the conversation.

"Leadsom needs a new PR adviser. Lord Bell is apparently part of her camp, but it's clear she needs someone that understands how the media works in 2016, not 1979. Spin and denial don't really cut it any more."

The blame game

Warren Johnson, founder and CEO of W, said: "There’s only one thing that comes across worse than saying something you shouldn’t in an interview – and that’s blaming the interviewer. Journalists (and newspapers) hold grudges, so as well as apologising to Theresa May, Leadsom needs to apologise to Rachel Sylvester and the editor of The Times for impugning their integrity, otherwise she can count on extremely hostile coverage from now on.

"Whatever she did or didn’t mean to say, the fact is that through all but the most generous interpretation, she was somehow placing herself above May in an extremely ruthless and unfeeling way. We all know politics is a dirty business, but this is not the way to present yourself if you’re claiming to be fighting a campaign built on optimism and a unifying vision for the future, as Leadsom is. It may play well in a sort of ‘dog whistle’ way with a minority of Tory party members, but will have left the vast majority of UK voters feeling queasy."

Ed McRandal, Insight Consulting Group associate director, said: "While some may have sympathised with Leadsom’s original sentiments, her campaign’s media response – deny, claim conspiracy, apologise, then portray yourself as a victim – will have won few converts to the idea she is a Prime Minister in waiting. By contrast, Theresa May has sought to portray herself as a statesman – a "bloody difficult woman", who will not yield in Brexit negotiations. She has had a good week."

Foot in mouth syndrome

DevoConnect CEO Gill Morris said Leadsom "has exposed herself rudely and prematurely and lost key support in terms of her judgement, and triggered genuine doubt in her ability to lead the country through the choppy Brexit waters ahead.

"She needs professional help to recover. On the face of it she has broader popular appeal when it comes to the membership but foot in mouth syndrome will plague her throughout the contest, unless she can demonstrate that she too has the steel and integrity that May has in legions. Good media support and help with her political messaging may help but she has to wake up to the political game.

"While May may be streets ahead I fear Leadsom could still come through if she brushes up her act and focuses on constituency votes. Stranger things have happened in recent times."

Anti-establishment

Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs, government and infrastructure at Bircham Dyson Bell, said the incident shows Leadsom is "out of her depth", but he suggests the approach could end up working in her favour.

"The comments were cringeworthy and completely out of step with where society is. But that has to be her strength in the campaign over the coming months. It is important to remember the profile of this electorate (the Tory Party membership) and what they want. A non-PC, anti-establishment, ‘they are all out to get me’ approach will appeal to them. It has worked in several elections recently.

"If Leadsom can tie May to David Cameron, who has long been viewed with suspicion and antipathy by party members, then her situation is far from terminal. It was no mistake that she focused on gay marriage and fox hunting early on – she obviously knows how to speak to that constituency."

Weber Shandwick chair of corporate, financial and public affairs Jon McLeod concurred, commenting: "I'd say that Leadsom is really struggling with her comms in the media, reflecting her inexperience as a minister. But people need to bear in mind that the selectorate is drawn from a very niche demographic dominated by white men over 60."

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