44 days of chaos: Team Truss gave a lesson in how not to do comms

If financial markets were looking on in open-mouthed horror at Liz Truss’ brief stint as prime minister, the communications industry was probably giving them a run for their money.

(Getty Images/Dan Kitwood/Staff)

Bad comms didn’t bring down Liz Truss. It was, after all, the economy – stupid. But the car crash of the PM’s PR operation hastened the end. It was also a lesson in how (not) to communicate significant strategic decisions both within your organisation and to the wider public.

The day Truss resigned was a microcosm of the chaos. First, the PM’s spokesperson said her diary held no meeting with Sir Graham Brady. Cue Brady being ushered in via the back door. Then came the line that Truss had actually requested the meeting. Personally, I wouldn’t invite someone into my house who tends to turn up with the political equivalent of a sharpened axe. Nonetheless, the spokesperson at least confirmed that we shouldn’t expect a press briefing that day.

Practically as they spoke, the lectern was out in front of No. 10, for the final act. This wasn’t a case of right hand not talking to left hand. This was right hand actively briefing against the very existence of a left hand, then the left hand popping up and saying that it had grave misgivings about the body’s general direction.

The U-turns on economic policy meant the balloon had gone up on Team Truss’ communications integrity some time before. Comms around the mini-budget were half-baked, poorly briefed and seemingly developed on the fly. When the markets panicked, we got a stark reminder of how quickly things can snowball for organisations of any kind – not just political – if they don’t have strategy in place to deal with reputational challenges as well as promoting ‘good news’.

If you don’t explain the why and how on the big calls, you’ll quickly become the story and risk being overtaken by events. Chief of staff Mark Fullbrook was apparently reduced to messaging MPs asking them to tweet their support; hardly a PR strategy. An inexperienced team let gaffes abound – defending an end to the ‘triple lock’ on pensions before denying it had ever been under threat, abusing former cabinet ministers in media briefings – the list goes on. As a leader newly in post, with huge operational decisions to announce and enact, Truss’ failure to get a whip-smart comms team in place had cost her.

In time, consensus may emerge that even if Truss had had a faultless PR operation, it couldn’t have salvaged her from the disaster of her policy volte-face. But if anyone needed reminding of how important your comms team is, the past 44 days have done the job. The next Prime Minister should bear that in mind through the huge comms challenges they will face.

Organisations everywhere should reflect on their own operations, and remember the seven Ps: prior planning and preparation prevents *something something* performance. You can fill in the gaps.

Edward Clark is an account director at Woodrow.

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