Bad news will always leak, get out ahead of it


Life is never easy for a British leader, and recent events reinforce that perception.

The prime minister is often overshadowed by the Windsor monarchy — lately including Queen Elizabeth’s glorious if self-congratulatory 60th Jubilee. It featured the biggest collection of British ships since Dunkirk and more rock stars [many now sporting their knighthoods] than a Wembley summer concert.

Then there is the Rupert Murdoch scandal and his newspapers’ apparent co-opting of past PMs, like Gordon Brown and John Major.

But the one that could have been so easily handled — and was not — involved Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha. Some months ago, as first reported in Murdoch’s Sun, the Camerons managed to leave their eight-year-old daughter Nancy behind after a family outing to a pub called the Plough near the PM’s country estate.

This embarrassing incident reported this week is not huge, but it certainly gained a lot more traction than it needed to. That it seems incomprehensible to Americans in the post 9/11 world is obvious. Her parents, leaving in separate cars each thought their daughter was with the other spouse. Nancy was fine, fetched by her father 15 minutes after the discovery.

The point here, however, is not to pile on to a prominent couple’s mistake. It’s to instruct how avoidable was this mistake, now rising to the level of the international incident du jour. All it required was a little understanding and some proactivity.

The first step was to understand that news, especially the bad variety, will almost always leak. In this case it took a few months, but word arrived at a reporter’s ear nonetheless.

The second firm lesson is that delivering bad news first, being proactive, is a way to lessen its impact. We all easily understand that no one wants to offer him or herself up for public ridicule, least of all a national politician who could lose a job over such mistakes.

Yet if the Camerons had issued an apologetic statement the day after the incident, taken responsibility and made it clear how sorry they were and praised the publican who cared so thoughtfully for their daughter, they’d have come out well ahead of where they are now.

People would still mutter and laugh because Cameron’s administration only a few weeks earlier set up a program to give parents of young children classes in how to raise them. If the Camerons were expert, as they should be, in crisis management, they’d have announced the incident and volunteered to attend the classes.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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