From ‘poorly polishing a turd’ to ‘a lesson in self preservation’ - PR chiefs react to Cummings press conference

The Dominic Cummings press conference may have gripped a nation, but comms experts are divided about whether it was an effective PR exercise. Industry leaders unpack the briefing and what it delivered.

Dominic Cummings has polarised industry opinion over whether his press conference (©GettyImages)
Dominic Cummings has polarised industry opinion over whether his press conference (©GettyImages)

The Dominic Cummings press conference has left PR professionals with more questions than answers and polarised industry leaders into two camps: those that believe his performance did enough to save his neck, and others who believe it amounted to a car crash (perhaps on the way to Barnard Castle).

'Trumpian' Cummings defence a 'Government comms disaster that could prove deadly'

In the hour-long conference, Cummings detailed his whereabouts in March and April and the reasons why he broke lockdown rules, in spirit if not the letter of the law. 

It featured some extraordinary revelations, including Cummings' claim that he drove 60 miles – to Barnard Castle and back – with his family to test out his eyesight for a long drive back to London the next day. 

Cummings is a polarising figure in British politics and his performance yesterday did little to alter that view.

In fact, Blurred co-founder Stuart Lambert believes it has left his “previously unwarranted reputation as some kind of svengali in tatters”.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry EMEA director Hannah Patel was less than impressed by the press conference, describing it as “a poor attempt at polishing a turd”, while Iris Worldwide managing partner Ginny Paton said the hour-long conference has left the public confused and with more questions than answers, but may be enough for Cummings to keep his job “by the skin of his teeth”.

Several industry leaders were stunned by what Cummings didn’t say – primarily that he was ‘sorry’ for the lockdown transgression.

HP’s UK and Ireland comms lead George Baggaley said the address will have left “large swathes of the public confused and enraged” and will jeopardise the public’s faith in the Government’s coronavirus communications.

On the flipside, there are several who believe Cummings' presser has preserved his job and will have appeased his allies, particularly within Conservative Party ranks.

Robbie Gibb, a senior advisor at Kekst CNC and former comms director at Number 10 under Theresa May, tweeted: “An impressive performance by Dom Cummings with lots of details and a clear rebuttal of some of the media’s coverage of the story, which have been shown to be false. I predict the story will no longer be leading the broadcast running orders by the end of the week.”

Alex Deane, former advisor to David Cameron and senior managing director at FTI Consulting, told BBC News that he admits that although Cummings should have responded to the media much sooner when the Daily Mirror and Guardian were investigating, he believes Cummings provided a compelling account.

“He has answered the questions that needed to be answered,” Deane said. “I think some of this has demonstrated how right Cummings was to rise above [the media scrutiny]. He should ignore journalists and get his message out to the country, rather than pandering to their desires.

Deane described the media’s grilling as akin to the Salem witch trials and that it’s “difficult not to feel sympathy” for Cummings as he was “being ganged upon” by a hostile press. 

Joey Jones, a former advisor to Theresa May and strategic counsel at Cicero/AMO, said Cummings' performance will have bought him time.

“I do wonder how much of this could have been avoided if he had just answered some straightforward questions earlier. He blames the media [and] clearly feels very aggrieved about a bunch of stories he says are false. 

“You only have to think back to Alastair Campbell’s New Labour media machine. One of the first rules they put in place was rapid rebuttal... get out there and correct it, whereas the current administration's approach dictated by Mr Cummings is to ignore and rise above it.”

Some industry views:

Today’s conference was a poor attempt at polishing a turd. They made him wear a shirt (nice try), allowed him to read his statement (as he’s shy) and ensured he arrived a couple of minutes late, but immediately apologised (poor bloke’s had a busy day). The whole routine was a carefully choreographed but poorly executed farce. The first law of holes: "if you find yourself in one, stop digging".
Hannah Patel, EMEA director, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

 

It sounded like when I got caught by my mum bunking off school; a long rambling layer of lies. However, at least even at 15, I knew to start with an apology. How did someone review his speech and say, “go get ‘em tiger”. It also just shows the reliance Boris has on DC, which in itself is really worrying. Or does Cummings have something really damaging on Boris.
Roxy Kalha, managing director, The Romans 

 

Whoever wrote the Cummings speech needs to look for a new job. It was clearly designed to confuse and obfuscate and in that regard, it did its job, but it prompted more questions than answers. At no stage did Cummings show any understanding of the situation, nor empathy or regret for the outrage his actions have provoked. What Cummings did was show utter disdain for the media, who he called out for their supposed inaccuracies, rather than any regret at the storm his confirmed actions have caused. Given the backing Cummings has already had from the Prime Minister, his performance smacked of someone who cares not about the rules, even if he contributed to their creation, nor the fury they provoke in those who have followed them at great personal expense.
David Alexander, managing director, Calacus

 

Mr Cummings did enough – that is: add emotion, add complexity and muddy the water just enough for the public to question their rage and the newscycle to move on… his performance shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of a politician; he’s not looking to be popular or hold on to a seat. It was all about self preservation and it was expertly done.
Shane O’Donoghue, director, Nelson Bostock Unlimited

 

His content provided me with more than a few laugh-out-loud moments during that hour. The first rule of crisis communications is keep it factual and keep it brief. Dominic decided to keep it factual but with seemingly an hour-by-hour account of his activities over the last five weeks, he has opened himself up to greater scrutiny. The more he talked, the more he seemed to contradict himself. On one hand here’s a full account of my activity, on the other he was too busy to recall details of conversations. Either it’s a full account or it isn’t. It looks like he is resolute in his position that he hasn’t done anything wrong, has played for public sympathy rather than anger, and has tried to shift the blame to the media for misrepresentation of the facts. It’s a bold play, and will only hold up if he’s told the whole truth. Only time will tell.
Tricia Fox, chief executive, Volpa

 

Cummings' previously unwarranted reputation as some kind of svengali lies in tatters. Anyone who before today proclaimed him the possessor of some psychological affinity with the British public had been made to look foolish. Cummings' smarts have been revealed to be nothing more than the proverbial smoke and mirrors. Worse, the smoke is acrid and the mirror is scratched beyond repair. This ties into my general theme of the "post-comms" world we have entered, and which we'll find ourselves firmly in, when we return to our PR agency offices. Words, messaging, even comms itself - all of this is now inarguably subordinate to actions, demonstration and behaviour. In short, what people, politicians and companies DO is now what matters. Not what they say. Not how they explain. Not how they excuse or justify or narrate.
Stuart Lambert, co-founder, Blurred

 

What we all need to remember is that many thousands of people have lost loved ones and in the most tragic and difficult circumstances. It is through their eyes that we need to assess what is done. Those leading at a time of crisis need to ask 'what would those affected think' before they act.
Amanda Coleman, crisis communications consultant, Amanda Coleman Communications

 

Cummings' delivery should not distract from the content, which did nothing to alleviate the crisis. Once the core fact that he travelled across the country, because he thought he might get ill, was established - the rest of the detail is largely irrelevant. By making that interpretation of the rules, he has jeopardised the public’s faith in the Government's coronavirus instructions. Whether Cummings believes that is a proportional response by the people is also irrelevant. Clearly, for swathes of the population, it has confused and enraged them. So for that reason, the key comms ingredient was to apologise and admit fault – even if he didn’t mean it privately. Apologise for taking rules into his own hands, then by all means include the details about why a father might panic in his situation. But for the word 'sorry' to be missing from his much rehearsed statement is nothing short of remarkable. It was the only solution, from a comms perspective, available to him – as the only objective was surely to reverse the damage done to public sentiment.”
George Baggaley, UK&I communications lead, HP

 

A totally unprecedented situation - an unelected government official holding a press conference from the Prime Minister’s back garden. With breathtaking arrogance, he kept journalists - and millions of viewers - waiting for over half an hour.  When it came, his statement was long-winded and over-detailed, yet still didn’t clear everything up. It created as many questions as answers. To his credit, he tackled all questions posed by the largely hostile press - so he can never be accused of ducking the issue. His long-winded ramblings will now be finessed into a statement that can be used for future rebuttals, meaning the matter is effectively now closed. And, as long as nothing new comes to light, then he’s got away with it. By the skin of his teeth. It made gripping telly, though. One of the best things I’ve seen since we went into lockdown.”
Ginny Paton, managing partner, Iris Worldwide

 

There are some facts about this extraordinary story that most people will agree on. Dominic Cummings is a polarising figure. The media can ask daft questions. Some comments made towards Cummings and his family are beyond the pale. Cummings’ performance was great TV. But it lacked the contrition that could have started to help draw a line under this for the Government. This story has made such a huge impact because it’s easy to understand. Everyone is affected by lockdown, and almost everyone is abiding by the rules. Cummings’ performance – starting 30 minutes late, blaming ‘false’ media stories and his tetchy responses to questions – will have done little to dispel the anger many will feel.
Ben Lowndes, director of South West, Social Communications

 

Communication from this Government is deliberately divisive and this is more of the same, meant to appeal to its supporters and antagonise its opponents. Cummings' performance will satisfy many supporters with his 'I did what any reasonable father would do in exceptional circumstances' line probably being parroted extensively on social media. It will infuriate opponents who see that he broke the rules and is wriggling his way out of it. Was it successful? Time will be the judge on that. Downing Street will inevitably try to draw a line under this, asking the public and media to move on, now it has been explained. If Cummings is still in place in two weeks it will have worked. However, if the clamour for him to go reaches a crescendo and forces him out, it will be because of what was omitted from today, not what was included. I personally believe it raised a number of questions, rather than answered them, and that is the biggest communication failure here today.
Tim Downs, director, Aberfield

 

Cummings must have summoned all his strength and might not to use that 5-letter word 'SORRY', and media certainly opened the door on numerous occasions. As soon as he did, it would have been an acceptance he did something wrong - which is in direct conflict with his whole strategy of claiming he behaved reasonably, and legally. It's a tactic we would use at Paddy Power when crafting reactive statements for provocative campaigns.
Lewis Davey, founder, Idea Farm

 

The statement itself appealed for sympathy and empathy. The questions round definitely unraveled some of the effort put in there by Cummings and his team. Claiming to be exceptional circumstances owing to having a four-year-old child will not wash with many parents. There are holes in the Barnard Castle round trip eye test story that will not be put to bed by journalists. Crucially though, Cummings has gone for an, “elite vs the people” message until now and mistrust of the “MSM”. Now he is inviting the MSM to explain why he is in fact exceptional and thanks to his parents’ multi-buildings house with lots of private land including a wood - he could self-isolate 260 miles away from his main residence in case the parents got so ill they couldn’t look after their child. Journalists cross-checking this account against his wife’s article in the Spectator about their lockdown will not be satisfied. I think an apology early on for possible misjudgment under panicked circumstances would have been a better response.
Siobhan Lipnicki, director, Buzz Lead Media

 

I think it's safe to say that this has been an utter PR disaster since the news broke that Cummings had broken lockdown rules to travel over 200 miles. I think the best course of action given the time would have been to apologise for his flouting of the rules and then to go on to explain the reasoning behind his actions. This would have sat much better with the UK public than just denying any wrongdoing and help keep his reputation intact.
Will Hobson, director, Rise at Seven

 

Like it or not, Dominic Cummings has been one of the great masters of political communication in recent years - not of those theorists, but of those who move behind the scenes and influence - and it was embarrassing to see him leaning against the ropes in this way. From a PR perspective, this conference dictates the end of Cummings as a "dark side lord" of political communication, as Steve Bannon, David Axelrod, Karl Rove, Alastair Campbell or James Carville have already been, to name a few. From a technical point of view, the press conference was a real disaster, violating all the rules that Cummings knows so well. The most important of them all was not having the ability to interpret the public opinion and not having realized that from the moment he decided to hold a press conference there could be only one thing to do: to apologize and relieve pressure on his leader.
Alexandre Guerra, press officer, Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa



All the 'rules' of crisis comms as we know them - be quick, clear, consistent, empathetic, apologetic, and so on - have been broken, as many PR commentators have pointed out. But that won't be news to the Prime Minister, Mr. Cummings and the Government. They are not naive, and in many ways they've been trying to rewrite the rules of normal play - and succeeding. If Cummings survives, this time they really will seem to have created a double standard - we can still expect ministers and MPs to lead the charge against any private company, charity or public figure behaving in a similar way. The difference now is that they plainly don’t expect to be held accountable themselves. One other lesson is that, for all the dire warnings about a decline in the quality of journalism in this country - and suggestions that the public are losing trust in the mainstream media - this whole affair reminds everyone that reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
Tim Toulmin, managing director, crisis communications specialists Alder

Industry tweets:

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