Media: Crisis? What crisis?
We all make mistakes. But if you're skilful they need not cost you your job.
Tuesday 09 February 1999
The lesson that the public relations industry would have us learn from the Glenn Hoddle and Chris Woodhead stories is the power of crisis management. Invest in good PR advice, they claim, and we'll show you how to survive your gaffe.
"Every situation is savable," says the celebrity publicist Max Clifford. "Just look at Clinton. My strategy would have been to get Hoddle to admit that he wasn't good at English - that's why he got into football. After all, humility goes a long way in this country.
"He could have come out and denied believing that the disabled deserve their lot, saying that he was sorry for any distress caused. At the same time, I would have had the disabled organisations he had worked with for years come forward and support him. You could have got to the point where Blair wouldn't have dared make the remarks that he did on the Richard and Judy show."
The Prime Minister said on ITV's This Morning that if Hoddle's remarks had been correctly reported "it would be very hard for him to stay". It has been identified as the point at which the England manager's position became untenable. Dave Hill, the long-time Labour spin doctor and veteran of many emergency rebuttals, agrees that Hoddle could have extricated himself: "He had to know on Friday night it was going to be a huge story. Even on Saturday morning, it would have been possible for him to get on the Today programme and start getting his message out. He should then have done the independent radio news programmes and had the lunch-time news bulletins reporting what he really said, not what The Times was reporting that he said."
Hill, who now works for the PR company Good Relations, believes Hoddle should also have chosen better the vehicles for his rebuttal: "He should have done hard news programmes, not a soft interview on Grandstand. When a sport or an education story leads the news it is no longer just a specialist story.
"He had to say he was misunderstood. This is what Chris Woodhead did. He covered the Saturday news programmes with his version of a relationship with an ex-student and a reinterpretation of what he had said at a teacher's conference - so that's what the papers were running on Sunday when he was apologising on TV. Hoddle was dead in the water by Monday, which is why Blair could say what he did on This Morning."
"Hoddle had limited options," says Trevor Morris, managing director of the Quentin Bell Organisation, a PR firm. "He had to clarify what he said and give journalists something to write. His lack of clarity left a vacuum which journalists were able to fill themselves."
The other option for Hoddle was to deny his quote completely. This is an option suggested by another former Labour spin doctor now plying his trade outside politics. Not surprisingly, he doesn't wish to be named: "If desperate, he could have stuck to the fact that he didn't say it. In the case of Roger Liddle and the Observer's cash for access story, Downing Street made it an issue about journalistic integrity, demanding a tape and getting the focus shifted to whether he said something, not what he said."
Max Clifford believes Hoddle should never have been allowed into the position where he could talk about reincarnation: "The biggest part of damage limitation is anticipation. You know what someone's opinions are on something and so you make sure that there is no way they ever talk about that subject. Despite cases like Terry Venables and Graham Taylor, the FA still doesn't seem to understand the importance of the manager's media relations." Other PR experts agree that Hoddle had a much bigger firestorm to deal with than Woodhead. An England football manager is a much bigger story than a chief inspector of schools - despite what that says about the news values of the media and the public.
"Woodhead was helped by the story breaking on a Saturday, for the same reason that Hoddle was harmed by the story breaking on a Saturday," says Hill. "Saturday is a sports news day. There wasn't much space on the short Saturday news bulletins for Woodhead's story." Added to this is the essential fact that Hoddle started from a much weaker position: "You can't ignore the different circumstances of the two men," says Hill.
"Hoddle was someone cut off from the real world. Woodhead understands politics and media and, crucially, he didn't have any baggage. His profile had been neutral for a few years and the Government supports him. Hoddle had fallen out with just about every sports journalist in the country."
And that, despite the claims of PR men talking up their trade, could be the greater difference in the two cases - Hoddle's job was much bigger and his gaffe so much worse, and he had burnt his bridges with those who could have helped. Yet the case of the two men is still instructive, not only in the ways of the media and its management, but also in regard to the changing status of public figures.
Celebrity is a commodity that helps to sell things, not least newspapers. This has always been the case - but the media is supposed to be about important people doing important things. Increasingly, it seems, it is about anyone famous doing anything at all.
Politics has understood this for some time and, with its rapid rebuttal unit, the Labour Party has so far been the best at dealing with "gaffe eruptions".
It can be no coincidence therefore that Labour's spin experts are moving out of politics and into the rest of public life. There they will provide their services for those who want to do a Woodhead, not a Hoddle.
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