Scandal management lessons from Dominic Cummings

The PR industry offers its take on the PM’s svengali.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 27 May 2020

You may not imagine there are many parallels between senior executives in business and a prime ministerial special adviser, but they share one important feature: like most corporate directors, Dominic Cummings is ordinarily more concerned with strategy than scandal.

Yet scandal is something that neither SPADs nor CEOs can guarantee avoiding. Sometimes something dreadful happens on your watch; other times you will do something that is dreadful, or at least in hindsight rather stupid. 

Very quickly you - and not your work and the work of your team - can become the story, and it is surely very discomfiting. (If in doubt, just ask Tony “I want my life back” Hayward, the CEO of BP who fell in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.)

It is rare for a non-politician to be prepared for handling hostile interviews, news articles and press conferences. So what can you learn from the characteristically unorthodox communications approach that Dominic Cummings and the prime minister have taken?

Here is the verdict from eight public relations industry leaders, collated by Arvind Hickman at Management Today’s sister title PRWeek.

“The first rule of crisis communications is keep it factual and keep it brief. Dominic decided to keep it factual but with seemingly an hour-by-hour account of his activities over the last five weeks, he has opened himself up to greater scrutiny. The more he talked, the more he seemed to contradict himself. On one hand here’s a full account of my activity, on the other he was too busy to recall details of conversations. Either it’s a full account or it isn’t.” -- Tricia Fox, chief executive, Volpa

“[The press conference] was a poor attempt at polishing a turd. They made him wear a shirt (nice try), allowed him to read his statement (as he’s shy) and ensured he arrived a couple of minutes late, but immediately apologised (poor bloke’s had a busy day). The whole routine was a carefully choreographed but poorly executed farce. The first law of holes: ‘if you find yourself in one, stop digging’.” -- Hannah Patel, EMEA director, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

“Cummings did enough – that is: add emotion, add complexity and muddy the water just enough for the public to question their rage and the newscycle to move on… his performance shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of a politician; he’s not looking to be popular or hold on to a seat. It was all about self preservation and it was expertly done.” -- Shane O’Donoghue, director, Nelson Bostock Unlimited

“Cummings' previously unwarranted reputation as some kind of svengali lies in tatters. Anyone who before now proclaimed him the possessor of some psychological affinity with the British public had been made to look foolish. Cummings' smarts have been revealed to be nothing more than the proverbial smoke and mirrors. Worse, the smoke is acrid and the mirror is scratched beyond repair. This ties into my general theme of the ‘post-comms’ world we have entered, and which we'll find ourselves firmly in, when we return to our offices. Words, messaging, even comms itself - all of this is now inarguably subordinate to actions, demonstration and behaviour. In short, what people, politicians and companies DO is now what matters. Not what they say. Not how they explain. Not how they excuse or justify or narrate.” -- Stuart Lambert, co-founder, Blurred

“What we all need to remember is that many thousands of people have lost loved ones and in the most tragic and difficult circumstances. It is through their eyes that we need to assess what is done. Those leading at a time of crisis need to ask 'what would those affected think' before they act.” -- Amanda Coleman, crisis communications consultant, Amanda Coleman Communications

“Cummings' delivery should not distract from the content, which did nothing to alleviate the crisis. Once the core fact that he travelled across the country, because he thought he might get ill, was established - the rest of the detail is largely irrelevant…. whether Cummings believes that is a proportional response by the people is also irrelevant. Clearly, for swathes of the population, it has confused and enraged them. So for that reason, the key comms ingredient was to apologise and admit fault – even if he didn’t mean it privately. Apologise for taking rules into his own hands, then by all means include the details about why a father might panic in his situation. But for the word 'sorry' to be missing from his much rehearsed statement is nothing short of remarkable.” -- George Baggaley, UK&I communications lead, HP

“Cummings' performance will satisfy many supporters with his 'I did what any reasonable father would do in exceptional circumstances' line probably being parroted extensively on social media. It will infuriate opponents who see that he broke the rules and is wriggling his way out of it. Was it successful? Time will be the judge on that. Downing Street will inevitably try to draw a line under this, asking the public and media to move on, now it has been explained. If Cummings is still in place in two weeks it will have worked. However, if the clamour for him to go reaches a crescendo and forces him out, it will be because of what was omitted, not what was included. I personally believe it raised a number of questions, rather than answered them, and that is the biggest communication failure here.” -- Tim Downs, director, Aberfield

“Cummings must have summoned all his strength and might not to use that 5-letter word 'SORRY', and media certainly opened the door on numerous occasions. As soon as he did, it would have been an acceptance he did something wrong - which is in direct conflict with his whole strategy of claiming he behaved reasonably, and legally. It's a tactic we would use at Paddy Power when crafting reactive statements for provocative campaigns.” -- Lewis Davey, founder, Idea Farm

See the full article here on PRWeek

Image credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images


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