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This week I discuss the crisis communications lessons to be learnt from Dominic Cummings’ recent ‘rule-breaking’ incident in lockdown.

As the ‘Dominic Cummings Affair’ is coming to an end I thought I would comment on what we can learn about crisis communications from the circus surrounding his visit to Durham, during lockdown. I think it is a perfect storm of a number of issues coming together to cause the incident, and I think there are a number of crisis communications lessons to learn from the atmosphere in which it happened and from the way the government has handled the response.

A country full of pent up anger

In the UK at the moment I believe there is a lot of suppressed anger and frustration, and this incident is the perfect atmosphere for the Cummings’ incident to take place. The pent-up anger comes from several sources:

  1. People who are fearful about their jobs, their business and prospects, as well as the economic downturn, which they can’t do anything about.
  2. People who see others breaking the lockdown rules, such as the teenagers getting together to play football, people having friends round or the neighbour who seems to be going out for more than one walk a day. They feel they are obeying the rules, but others aren’t.
  3. People who have made great sacrifices such as not seeing grandchildren, boyfriends/girlfriends, close friends or attending events like birthdays, weddings and funerals.
  4. There are those who loathe Boris and have to put up with him on the TV often, leading our country.
  5. There is still the legacy and anger of the Brexit divisions, with many issues not fully decided upon.
  6. The people living in holiday locations who rail against tourists and second homeowners.

Difficult to hate an invisible virus

All these people are angry and have been looking for an outlet for their anger and someone to blame and get angry at. In the Second World War, Germans were the enemy. Not just some Germans, such as the Nazis, but all Germans, and we had a nice well-defined enemy. In other economic downturns, people that are angry about the situation turn on groups they can blame or vilify. These could be communists, saboteurs, Jewish people, Democrats, shadowy capitalist elites or minorities within their country. In the UK, we don’t have a strong history of blaming groups for our woes, and with COVID-19 it is hard to take out our anger on an invisible virus.

Holding out for a hero (and villain)

In all action films and in incidents we need heroes and villains. The hero in this story is undoubtedly the NHS, who put their lives on the line to protect their patients. It is harder to put the government into the villain role, as although they have definitely made some major mistakes, such as little protection for those in care homes and the timing of the lockdown, they are managing the incident the best they can, the incident is unprecedented and we need to keep faith in them as are they are in charge. The media, who love to identify a villain, have to be careful with attacking the government. They want to hold them to account, but they can’t undermine them too strongly or people will lose faith in their response and ignore what they say, leaving us in a worse position.

We have had a couple of candidates for villains, Catherine Calderwood, former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, went against her own advice by visiting her holiday home in Fife for the weekend, and Professor Neil Ferguson, had his ‘married lover’ to visit him at his house during lockdown. They both resigned very quickly and disappeared, so there was nowhere for the story to go and for people to vent their anger.

Dominic Cummings, a Rasputin for the 2020s?

Enter Dominic Cummings, the shadowing figure behind the Brexit campaign and the recent election. Unelected, casual, not well liked by many he works with and seen as the power behind the Boris throne, a Rasputin for the 2020s. At the height of the lockdown, he drove to Durham to take his child to his sister. When the story broke in the news, he was an ideal person to hate for people’s pent-up anger. The narrative being that there is one rule for those in power, another for everyone else, meaning they could ignore the rules while the rest of us obeyed. This story appealed to the British sense of fair play. Instead of resigning, with the Prime Minister backing him, he has stayed in post and shut down any attempt to force him to ‘consider his position’. This caused real anger in the press; firstly, they are always looking for a villain, and secondly, they have not got their way by forcing him to resign or be sacked. Every press conference and media bulletin I watched was dominated by the story, even long after there was any new news and the government were clearly not going to be forced into a U-turn. The anger of the press was palpable, as they had lost this battle with the government, been defied and therefore felt a loss of their power.

Crisis communications lessons

The crisis communication lessons to be learned from this incident:

  1. You need to make a very early call if you are going to ‘back or sack’ a member of your staff accused of wrongdoing. Being forced to U-turn and sack them reduces your standing, judgement and reputation. As soon as an event occurs you need to examine the case thoroughly and ensure that you are in possession of all the facts. If additional facts come out or their story changes, you can say the person was not honest with you, but it still leads to questions of your judgement if you employed someone who lied to you.
  2. If you decided to support the person you must be prepared for the criticism and pressure which comes with your continued support and be prepared to not bend to the pressure. You may also exhaust or deplete your reservoir of goodwill in you continuing to support them, so you have to consider that this is a price you are happy to pay.  The case may be brought up in future when someone else conducts a similar action so again, you have to be prepared to defend the person for the long run. 
  3. A key tactic in crisis communications is to try and draw a line under the event and make sure that there are no more questions to be answered. This is normally done by putting out a detailed statement. The difficulty in a detailed statement is that they can lead to further questions and clarification, which makes the story newsworthy again. By having Dominic Cummings answer questions in person in a no holds, barred session with journalists was an excellent way of getting the facts of the story out and cutting away rumours and falsehoods. After the session, in one of the subsequent news conferences, Robert Peston asked Boris Johnston a question on the detail of Cummings’ story. Boris was able to say you have had the chance, as a very experienced journalist, to question Cummings, so I have nothing more to add. Story of the facts closed and drawing a line under the affair could begin.
  4. Recognise the crisis management landscape and be aware of issues, such as suppressed anger. Know that if you are a player in this landscape any incident that taps into the anger is likely to be magnified, highlighted and ceased upon. This is a similar issue to what can be seen in communities who have just been affected by a major incident, such as Hurricane Katrina.

I personally didn’t follow the ins and outs of Dominic Cummings’ journey and so have no real opinion of whether he is hard done by or a villain, I will leave that to other people’s opinions! My conclusion on these types of incidents is to never let a good incident go to waste. When you see them unfolding, think about what advice you would give if you were brought in as an advisor.

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