How do you solve a PR problem like Carillion?

Political crises have a cycle and a rhythm to them. At first they can hit like a tsunami, with Whitehall playing catch-up.

Centralise the flow of information to the public and the media so you can plan ahead, advises Giles Kenningham
Centralise the flow of information to the public and the media so you can plan ahead, advises Giles Kenningham

Information is dripping out from multiple sources (including different government departments) and the speculation starts to feed off itself, fuelling the crisis.

In the case of Carillion, three audiences need reassuring: the public/taxpayer; the UK business sector; and foreign governments and the foreign press.


Also see: Carillion's collapse exemplifies an industry that must modernise its attitudes or die


So, what do you do?

Messaging

Firstly, centralise the flow of information. Whitehall is a big cumbersome machine with many moving parts, making it difficult to control at the best of times. The first task is to create a Whitehall task force comprised of ministers from the relevant government departments that meets daily and, where necessary, briefs the press afterwards. This ensures that the journalists have a reference point and departments aren’t freelancing at will. It also means you can plan more than one day ahead, and it should stop some of the speculative scare stories running.

Use the experts

In a 24-hour news cycle you need two/three dedicated ministers who can speak with authority and credibility on developments. However, where possible you want to take the politics out of the story. During the 2013 horse meat scandal we regularly used vets and other scientific experts to keep the focus on policy and not personnel. In the case of Carillion they will at times want to use financial/industry experts. The politics can wait until after things have been sorted.

Inquiry

You need an independent inquiry to ascertain the facts that ultimately sets out a series of recommendations to ensure this doesn’t happen again. This shows the public there is rigour and due process in getting to the bottom of what went wrong. The press and the public will want to know that lessons have been learnt.

Businesses affected

Often problems are compounded by a failure to communicate with the very people hit by the crisis. Whitehall needs a dedicated helpline for those businesses facing financial hardship because of the collapse. This will hopefully mean all problems are sorted out behind closed doors and not in the glare of the media spotlight.

Brexit

Most things in this country are now seen through the prism of Brexit. Conveying certainty and stability is even more acutely important at the moment. Whitehall needs to reassure the foreign press and in turn foreign governments that this is hopefully a one-off and not symptomatic of a wider problem.

Finally, Theresa May kicked off her premiership talking about responsible capitalism. This has taken a backseat due to the Brexit negotiations.

Once this crisis has been sorted, this may be the opportunity to re-cast and push that agenda.

Giles Kenningham is a former Number 10 special adviser and the founder of Trafalgar Strategy

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