Cameron has botched crisis comms basics in Greensill scandal

Given his previous role as director of corporate affairs for Carlton, now part of ITV, you would be forgiven for thinking that David Cameron would be well equipped to handle his own personal PR crisis.

David Cameron has spectacularly failed to follow the basics of crisis comms, argues James Devas
David Cameron has spectacularly failed to follow the basics of crisis comms, argues James Devas

You might even suggest that serving as Prime Minister for six years would provide some on-the-job training, too.

But while the former PR man claims not to have broken any lobbying rules, he is smashing his way through several of them in the crisis comms playbook.

The result? A reputation that, irrespective of the Cabinet Office investigation, will be tarnished in the long run – with his critics citing cronyism combined with an alarming lack of transparency.

Of course, crises can be prevented and managed. Not with spin or dark arts, but by being open, honest, and acting in a responsible way. So how could Cameron have managed his crisis better?

Prevention is better than cure

In communicating with Chancellor Rishi Sunak via text message to push the case for Greensill, Cameron failed to apply one key stress test: what would this look like on the front page of a national newspaper? Furthermore, what are the optics, and how could this be interpreted?

Had Cameron played out a scenario in which his activity became public knowledge, he might have acted differently and gone through more formal channels. This single decision could have prevented his crisis in its current form.

Go early

When the horse has bolted, as it did for Cameron, any preventative measures become too little, too late. At this point, rather than waiting for it to blow over, Cameron should have issued a quick and timely initial response. As the story grew bigger, there was a sense of inevitability that his response would come eventually. Why not get ahead of the crisis?

Instead, Cameron sat in silence. The flames grew bigger, and he appeared indifferent. He left a vacuum in which criticism, scrutiny and speculation gained momentum. We now know that Cameron had his own version of events, but because nothing was issued earlier he had no right of reply included in reporting. Thirty days later, he did respond; but the timing was so sluggish that it failed to convey credibility – regardless of the content. Cameron failed to neutralise the crisis in its early stages.

Go hard

As well as going early, there is a case to be made that Cameron should have got all the details out – rather than waiting for the talented teams at The Sunday Times and Financial Times to slowly uncover more and more juicy details. With this approach, there would have been less space for ‘new’ developments to drive the media agenda a month later. Cameron may have been reluctant to volunteer all the information, but this would have, to some extent, prevented the crisis from rumbling on – and shown a level of openness and transparency.

Lessons learned?

Cameron’s recent statement hit the right tone, but it was too little, too late. A bit like in comedy, timing is everything in comms. In Cameron’s own words, there are lessons to be learned from his lobbying. Perhaps there are a few to be learned from his crisis comms, too.

James Devas is managing director at Seven Dials City

Thumbnail credit: Getty Images

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