How Cummings and Johnson made the Three Biggest Mistakes in Crisis Communications


Picture of Number 10 Downing Street

 By Roz Morris

It’s really very simple. There are three big important rules for handling the media during a reputational crisis.

These are: Crisis Comms Rule Number One – Always express regret for what has happened.

Crisis Comms Rule Number Two – Always keep some control of the narrative of the unfolding story.

Crisis Comms Rule Number Three – Don’t blame the media.

Obviously, Dominic Cummings and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s UK Government have spectacularly managed not to follow any of these vital rules .   

And this accounts for much of the trouble they have had in their handlng of the ‘Cummings Crisis’.

First the Government broke Rule Number Two. They did not seize the news agenda and put out their own version of events right from the start.

They let everything drift along with newspapers publishing stories about Dominic Cummings travels with his family to the North East of England and back again to London during the UK lockdown, when he and his wife were worried about going down with Covid-19 and drove 260 miles from London to stay – in a separate and socially distanced way near his family in County Durham.

The big question was: why was the Prime Minister’s Senior Aide driving hundreds of miles when the lockdown rules appeared to make it clear that no- one should drive anywhere?

However – ‘Let’s move along. Nothing to see here,’ was the Government’s initial reaction on 19 May when The Observer and The Mirror broke the news of Mr Cummings two long car journeys, made after the UK’s strict lockdown imposed on 23 March.

This allowed the media to run with the story and it got bigger. And bigger. But not in a good way for the Government. They lost control of the narrative and allowed widespread speculation without proper rebutttal, including regret, (Ignoring Rule Number One as well as Rule Number Two.)

Next, on 22 May The Mirror and The Guardian broke more news about Mr Cummings travels during lockdown, reporting that he made a day trip on Easter Sunday 12 April with his family to Barnard Castle. This was 30 miles from his family’s farm where he was staying. This too was questionable in terms of strict lockdown rules about travel and its purposes.

April 12, it turned out, was also his wife’s birthday.  A fact that some people have pointed out may be relevant for making a decison to make a day trip.

Mr Cummings (at his later press conference) said the trip was ‘to test his eyesight’, after he had recovered from the virus, before he drove back to London. This was not accepted as entirely convincing by much of the media and the public.

On 23 May Downing Street stood by Mr Cummings, saying in a statement: “Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.

“His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines. Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.”

Mr Cummings told journalists outside his home: “I behaved reasonably and legally.”

When a reporter suggested that his actions did not look good, he replied: “Who cares about good looks?  It’s a question of doing the right thing. It’s not about what you guys think.” (Breaking Rule Number Three by attacking the media for doing its job.)

This belligerent style, which is typical of Mr Cummings usual style in his encounters with many journalists, was not at all helpful in terms of creating any positive narrative for the Government. Also neither the Government nor Mr Cummings expressed any regret of any kind. (Breaking Rule Number Two)

Political pressures on the Prime Minister continued to multiply.. The Labour Party and the SNP were unconvinced by the Government’s statements. They wrote to  the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, demanding an inquiry into Mr Cummings’ actions.

As things got worse and worse for the Government, the story continued to grow,  and with many MP’s from all parties pointing out they had had hundreds of very angry emails from their constituents, the Government just ploughed on in the wrong furrow and broke the third rule of crisis communications in a very definite manner.

Crisis Comms Rule Number Three (in full) – Even if justified, don’t blame the media – especially if you haven’t expressed regret.  Correcting media statements is useful. Attacking the media during a crisis only makes you sound desperate and makes them even nastier to you.  It always (repeat always) makes things worse.

In a statement, a Number 10 spokeswoman used attack terminology and accused the Mirror and The Guardian of writing “inaccurate” stories about Mr Cummings, including claims he had returned to Durham after going back to work in Downing Street on 14 April.

“We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers,” the spokeswoman added.

On 24 May with up to 40 Conservative MPs calling on Mr Cummings to resign because he had apparently broken lockdown rules on everyone staying at home when they or a family member has symptoms of the virus, the prime minister defended Mr Cummings, describing him as acting “responsibly, legally and with integrity” when the topic came up during one of the Government’s daily coronavirus briefings.

Mr Johnson said his top aide “followed the instincts of every father and every parent”, adding, “I do not mark him down for that”. 

Social media and the traditional media all then pointed out that everyone else had had to suppress their family instincts for the greater good during lockdown by not travelling to see any family at all whatever the circumstances, even when relatives were dying.  

On Bank Holiday Monday 25 May, Mr Cummings, who is a senior advisor and not an elected representative of any kind, finally decided to try to seize some control of the story and took the unprecedented step of giving his own news conference at Downing Street.

He made a detailed statement about his movements during lockdown, answered lots of questions and said “I don’t regret what I did.” 

Journalists pressed him for over an hour and gave him several opportunities to express regret.  He did not choose to take these opportunities, still sticking to his Edith Piaf line of ‘Je ne regrette rien’. Yes It’s a great song but it’s no use in crisis management.

This was a huge missed opportunity. Before this press conference, it was becoming clear that the reputational damage to the Government was large but not yet irreparable for a majority. 

It would have been so much better if Mr Cummings had managed to make a statement on the lines of: “This was a very unusual and very difficult situation and I understand that some people will not agree with what I did.  I am sorry that my actions have upset some people and if I could have done things differently I would.  I regret that the decisions I made have caused so much upset. I don’t know if I would do the same again. This was a very difficult and distressing situation etc.. ”

Admitting some vulnerability and more humility, trying to take the public with him, would have been a more constructive approach. it wouldn’t win everyone over but it would have helped,.

In fact it would have been even better if a statement like this had been made right at the start of the whole ‘Cummings Crisis’ with the Government and Mr Cummings both expressing regret, taking the public into their decision making, and admitting that like everyone else they can be wrong.

However Mr Cummings did not express regret and this was seen by many people as arrogance and the very personification of elitism.  Public anger turned to rage and MP’s of all parties spoke of never having had so many furious emails, many mentioning hypocrisy, betrayal and double standards for powerful people.

In late May, Boris Johnson’s popularity rating as Prime Minister sank to a previously unknown depth for him of Minus 1. So, all in all, breaking the three rules of crisis media management has brought very bad results for the Prime Minister and his Senior Aide.

Which leads to another important question; Where was the Downing Street Director of Communications in all this mess? Does he believe the Cummings Crisis has been handled the right way? In which case he’s not in the right job. Or did he give good advice which was ignored by both the Prime Minister and his Senior Aide? In which case he’s the wrong person for the job.

In crisis media training programmes I always explain to executives that expressing regret is not the same as admitting guilt.  Saying you are sorry that your actions have upset people is not the same as legally admitting error. 

Expressing regret cannot save you entirely but it does help in showing that you are thoughtful, concerned about public opinion and are taking people a little way into your decision-making process. If you follow the three rules, you have a chance of getting some people back on your side, and at the very least, you will hold the line and not continually make things worse and worse.

This ‘Cummings Crisis’ has shown that Boris Johnson and his senior aide may be very skilled at winning elections and getting the public on their side for voting, but they are right out of their depth in the (to them) foreign territory of making the emotionally intelligent demonstrations of empathy, reassurance and transparency required for effective crisis communications.