For the Liberal Democrats, the Rennard affair was bad enough, particularly blowing up in the middle of the Eastleigh by-election; the way it has so far been handled from a crisis management point of view has made it a lot worse. The problem for the party is that prevarication, twisting in the wind and changes of mind seem to have been far more in evidence than specific, decisive action. First, the line seemed to be that Mr Clegg did not know about the allegations, so presumably he couldn’t have been expected to have taken action, then it seemed he did know but only about ‘general concerns’, now it is alleged many senior party figures were aware of more specific complaints.
Meanwhile a whistleblowing system designed to encourage women to come forward if they have any complaints of sexual harassment turned out to be run by the wife of a key party aide – so hardly independent. When this was pointed out, an external agency was instead called in to take over. Add to the mix a party president who, in contrast to his leader admits that the party ‘screwed up’ over the allegations, and you have all the ingredients for a public perception of headless chicken-style running around in circles.
When a crisis erupts, whether to a company, government or political party, the ideal is to be able to leave the perception that the problem occurred despite you and your systems and procedures, rather than because of you and your systems and procedures. If possible, you should be able to demonstrate that as an organisation you have done your best to anticipate the types of issues that could arise and deal with them robustly. When the crisis breaks you want to be able to have a clear explanation of what happened, why it happened, and what you are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
If you do not have the full facts (you almost never have the full facts), show that you are investigating properly, and share with us the facts you do have. The aim is for a consistent narrative which does not need to be amended as new information comes to light – in other words you need a framework in place that enables you to look as if you are in control of the problem, rather than at the mercy of events. In this ideal case, if something does go wrong, fewer people will blame you. Maybe the LibDems will now learn this lesson.
Tom Maddocks coaches business leaders and managers as founder and Course Director of Media Training Associates. He is author of the book The M-factor – media confidence for business leaders and managers which is published this week.