Thursday, 13 January 2022

Leading reluctant horses to water


Spin doctors, to use the pejorative description of PR officers, generally have a poor reputation. But having worked with some, both in my political activity over the years and in my paid employment, I can honestly say that they are generally professional and hard-working. When presented with a situation where their clients have, shall we say, ‘got into a little local difficulty’, they will always do their very best to come up with a strategy aimed at rescuing the reputation of the individual or organisation employing them. Sometimes, however, the task is beyond even the best of them, and their task is never made any easier if the client believes that he or she knows better and/or is pathologically incapable of taking and following the best advice. And that brings us to the Prime Minister.

On Monday, he effectively tried to tell us that he couldn’t possibly know whether a party had taken place on 20th May 2020 or even whether he’d been present, until a civil servant had investigated the claims and reported back to him. Whilst it’s just about believable that a PR expert might have tried to come up with some sort of approach to buy a little time in order to establish the facts for him or herself (they would know Johnson well enough to know that they couldn’t depend on the veracity of whatever he had told them), it’s hard to believe that what Johnson actually came out with was the product of any serious deliberation. And even harder to believe that the PR people would not have known that he’d be unable to prevent himself smirking as he uttered the words.

It should have been obvious to anyone that the statement wouldn’t hold for longer than it took to make it, and the PM’s own former adviser, Guto Harri, very publicly offered the advice that only a full and grovelling apology to the House of Commons stood any chance of saving his skin. It was good advice; it’s the accepted norm that the best – or perhaps I should say ‘least worst’ – option in difficult circumstances is to come clean, tell the whole truth, get everything out in the open and make a fulsome and sincere apology. It was Johnson’s only chance, and he fluffed it. It’s impossible to know, from the outside, whether his own in-house staff were trying to push him in the direction suggested by Guto Harri, but they don’t deserve to be in their jobs if they weren’t. Instead, what we got was the ludicrous claim that his own private office had invited 100 people to a party in his back garden after normal office hours without asking or even telling him, and that he and his then fiancée just happened to wander out into the garden at the appointed hour, saw people milling around drinking and eating snacks from a buffet table, assumed that it must be a work meeting (because aren’t all work meetings like that?) and joined in by mingling with those present, before realising after 25 minutes that it wasn’t a work meeting at all and returning to his own office. And, eighteen months later, when it came to light and he was forced into delivering a non-apology to the House of Commons, he proceeded to tell MPs privately afterwards that he had done nothing at all wrong.

It’s unbelievable that any spin doctor would have even countenanced advising Johnson to try such a lame and pathetic approach. I can imagine them sitting in front of a television pulling their hair out as he spoke. Normally, having worked in such a high-profile role as spin doctor to the PM would be a huge asset in seeking further employment, but who’d want to employ someone who was even suspected of going along with this charade? And that brings us back to the starting point – no matter how expert, professional or experienced a PR officer is, he or she can only deliver if the client is willing and able to listen to and follow advice. Nobody would ever accuse Johnson of falling into either of those categories.

No comments: