Last week in Parliament, the former press aide to Gordon Brown, Damian McBride, gave a fascinating account of life (or rather the lack of it) as a media adviser. Striking a remarkably candid tone, he described the heady mix of politics, power and influence that ultimately led to his fall from grace following the scandal surrounding leaks of his emails smearing political opponents.
He was talking to the Public Affairs Select Committee about the role of independent advisers and the value of maintaining impartiality in the civil service. Describing the all-consuming nature of political life, he acknowledged the challenges of maintaining a ‘normal’ ‘outlook on things, but argued that the answer lies in advisers who can achieve a better balance than he did, rather than doing without.
To make his case, he suggested the honourable committee look no further than the Lib Dems’ mismanagement of the Lord Rennard scandal, which is rapidly becoming a textbook example of how not to respond in a crisis.
Clearly, McBride doesn’t think Clegg has a decent media adviser in post, and to be fair, most of the press would agree with him.
There were a few reasons why Clegg got it so badly wrong and it’s worth having a look at them to understand exactly what is needed in a crisis.
1. Being inconsistent
As the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson pointed out, much of Clegg’s trouble stemmed from the fact that he started out with one line (namely that he knew nothing about the allegations), then moved to another, later admitting he might after all have heard some vague rumours but ‘nothing specific’.
2. His tone jarred with the mood of the nation
Few take on the media and come out of the fight without a bloody nose, so talking about ‘self-appointed detectives’ was never going to get Clegg far, especially with the party on shaky ground over its own investigations at the time.
Typically, the mood of the media reflects (or determines, depending on your point of view) the mood of the nation and time after time, the best spokespeople in a crisis are those who are in tune the ‘vibe on the ground’.
3. Failing to be open
Political commentator Iain Martin was scathing in his blogpost for The Telegraph, contrasting Clegg’s ‘“shut up, right” school of media management’ with the ‘serious minded and open’ statements of Lib Dem president Tim Farron.
People appreciate that openness in a crisis can be a balancing act, necessarily constrained by the boundaries of the law, the facts (or often the lack of them) available, and the need to show sensitivity to a situation.
But even within those constraints, people expect spokespeople to show a willingness to engage, co-operate and discuss what has gone wrong. (Contrast Tesco and Iceland on the horsemeat scandal.)
In short, good issues and crisis management requires individuals to be honest and strike the right tone for the occasion.
To achieve this, they need both self-awareness and awareness of the public mood. So it is down to media advisers to ensure that spokespeople keep sight of these. Which comes back to McBride’s point about impartiality, but also having a life outside work.
While even the committee seemed to do a double-take when he said it might have helped if he’d had a family, the point he went on to make was that being grounded in normal life helps advisers retain that essential connection with the real world – and therefore help their clients strike the right tone in negotiating it.