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Mis-Communicator of the Week: Nick Clegg

26th February 2013

I’ve tried to resist, after making two politicians my award winners in the previous two weeks, but the list of errors from this week’s award winner are just too numerous to ignore. My Mis-Communicator of the Week is another politician but with good lessons for anyone dealing with a threat to a client’s reputation.

There are some basic totems of crisis communication best practice: speed; transparency; humility. All have been lacking from the way Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has handled the allegations of inappropriate behaviour by former Liberal Democrat chief executive Lord Rennard, which is now subject of a police investigation.

The Spectator has published a useful timeline of events which illustrates the apparent cover up of wrong-doing. It isn’t for me here to get into the allegations – Lord Rennard may be innocent – but Nick Clegg’s response as the story erupted is a case study in how not to handle a crisis.

1. Speed. It has emerged that these allegations have been made to Nick Clegg before. They were not dealt with in a timely manner but instead allowed to fester and become Westminster gossip. Then, as the allegations became public, Clegg went off on holiday rather than demonstrate he was taking them seriously. If Lord Rennard is proved to be innocent then the perception has been allowed to develop that he is not. If these allegations had been investigated quickly and properly this unnecessary threat to the reputation of the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t have developed.

2. Transparency. First it was complete denial, then vague awareness. Followed hours after the Deputy Prime Minister insisted he knew only of ‘non-specific concerns’ about the conduct of the Liberal Democrat peer, it emerged that detailed allegations were put to his office during the last general election. We all should heed the lesson of the Watergate scandal: it’s not the crime; it’s the cover up which will get you. The Deputy Prime Minister needs to learn from the past.

3. Humility. Nick Clegg’s initial response was problematic in tone as well as content. Some have claimed his statement released over the weekend was “self-pitying”. This is the last thing a crisis response should be. The words should be focussed on righting wrongs or ensuring a quick and open investigation. The tone must be humble, caring yet assertive. What you say is not about you but the “victims”.

This story has hit the front pages of ten national papers over the past three days. The story is not dead; the crisis continues. Political crises tend to last longer than those of other organisations or companies, but the way this has been handled has damaged the reputation of the Liberal Democrats in a way that could have been easily avoided. For that, Nick Clegg is my Mis-Communicator of the Week.

Written by Edward Staite, founder of Staite Communications

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