A shiver flies up my spine whenever I see company chiefs and politicians douse diesel on emerging crises. Having spent my career advising companies and holders of high office how to better manage their public relations, it still unnerves me when seasoned communicators decide to ignore the first rule of PR: never attack the media.
As allegations emerged about Keith Vaz MP’s private life this weekend, I instantly recognised the tell-tale signs of someone about to make a bad situation so very much worse. When the Leicester East MP was recorded allegedly speaking with male prostitutes in his London flat and offering to cover the cost of their cocaine, he was already in the realm of life-changing events. But his outburst afterwards showed me a man losing his grip on both power and influence.
Colourful pasts and current crises mean that I often create PR plans to quell public and political concerns. At the Commonwealth’s diplomatic headquarters in London, I recently worked with diplomats to help manage their public perception, even interviewing Nigeria’s former Army General and military ruler, President Obasanjo, for ‘Commonwealth Day’ – all in an effort to communicate positive messages about the 53-member countries.
Like a man who had forgotten every PR tactic during his 29-year parliamentary career, Keith Vaz blasted journalists in a BBC statement:
“It is deeply disturbing that a national newspaper should have paid individuals to have acted in this way.
“I have referred these allegations to my solicitor, Mark Stephens of Howard Kennedy, who will consider them carefully and advise me accordingly.”
Vaz has achieved that rather dubious honour of having deeply humiliating facts about his personal life streamed into millions of homes across the globe. Lashing out at a media who are already reporting events reduces his opportunity to influence how the narrative is played out in the national press.
It is with clockwork regularity that politicians like Vaz, as well as company directors of some of Britain’s biggest firms, get into a spot of hot water and then proceed to make things much worse for themselves through making basic PR errors.
PR catastrophes are often swerved when PR professionals work with companies or celebrities as they go about rebuilding trust and respect. When Tesco saw £2bn wiped off its market value over an accounting scandal, I encouraged journalists to write more about the story by providing new angles and information to file more stories – not shut the debate down.
If Keith Vaz adopts a slightly more helpful tone, he too still has time to stop this story being more painful than it already is. Indeed, any politician finding themselves in Vaz’s footsteps should remember a few basic rules of engagement:
Publish a comprehensive statement quickly and early
Own all the dirt and get it all out quickly. Don’t let new lines drip out. Put the record straight if facts are wrongly reported.
Target your grassroots
A bit more time actually campaigning in the constituency wouldn’t go a miss. Let your leaflet deliverers know you’re a good local MP, not just a Westminster careerist. Admittedly, for Vaz, he may be a couple of decades too late for this approach.
Control the pain
Get the chief whip on board tout suite. No, they are not magicians – usually – but you have a fighting chance if your chief whip isn’t plotting to hang you up by the nearest flagpole.
Get good legal advice
If you have been offering to secure cocaine or are caught discussing shameful illegality, you need a lawyer. It would be a good idea to let them be your voice as you are likely to go off-piste. Again.
No-one likes a sore loser
So, you’ve been caught doing bad things. Stop shouting at the media – you wish you had as many voters as they do readers. It’s a scrap you will not and cannot win.
Imran Khan is a Public Relations Consultant who helps companies and organisations manage corporate reputations
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