Across 48 volatile hours, over 50 MPs quit Boris Johnson's government. Of course, this resulted in not only the biggest political crisis in recent years, but Mr Johnson's inevitable resignation, too.
Having watched his resignation speech with the same morbid fascination that you did, there's great value in us dissecting it, after all, crisis management is a key function of any business... and as your forever helpful PR agency, it's our pleasure to divulge some of the fundamentals of effective crisis management.
So, based on Mr Johnson's speech, here are 3 techniques you can deploy to minimise brand damage and protect your reputation during a media crisis.
1: Maintain perceived control
Mr Johnson's speech opens with a concession that:
"It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader and therefore a new Prime Minister."
From a reputation point of view, this admission is not ideal, but to minimise any perception that he has been 'forced out', he quickly continues with, "... and I've agreed with Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of our Backbench MPs, that the process of choosing that new leader should begin now.". A subtle but timeless tactic, via this sentence, Mr Johnson indicates collaboration; which hints towards his continued control over proceedings.
The word "agrees" is arguably the most potent and deliberately used word in the entire speech, because to the casual onlooker, it signals control; suggesting he walked rather than was pushed.
Indicating collaboration is a prized crisis management technique because it suits both the outgoing party and the entity they're departing. How? Well firstly, the outgoing party (Mr Johnson, in this case) maintains a sense of dignity and fortitude while the entity they're departing (the Conservative party) avoids further unsavoury damage to their brand equity.
We, the public, often gain comfort knowing 'wrong-doers' were dismissed from their position of influence, but ironically, an acrimonious departure can leave a damaging perception in our minds as assumptions of infighting, turbulence and hostility usher in. No brand seeks to be aligned with those behaviours. Certainly, the Conservative party wishes to manage its future reputation no less than Mr Johnson does, which is why, in these instances, the official line is often one of 'mutual agreement' even if the reality is anything but.
2: Align & validate
In the midst of a crisis, aligning yourself with the people you serve is a necessity because it minimises perceived conflict between you and them. We previously showed you how Jeff Bezos does this with remarkable skill, and Mr Johnson is no less adept when he says:
"... to the millions of people who voted for us in 2019 — many of them voting Conservative for the first time — thank you for that incredible mandate; the biggest conservative majority since 1987 and he biggest share of the vote since 1979."
Arguably, via these assertions, Mr Johnson subtly aligns himself with the public by planting the seed that 'I'm not all that bad, after all, more people voted for me than any other Conservative leader in recent history."
Again, remember, Mr Johnson and his speech writer's primary objective is not to explain or apologise necessarily, their objective is to validate his position and protect his reputation. Reminding us of Mr Johnson's election performance is a classic validation/protection technique, and so too are his allusions to "cutting taxes and generating growth".
3: Compliment & recognise
Making people feel valued, significant and important brings marked rewards — as we showed you here. Mr Johnson sought to reap these rewards by showering us with generous epithets throughout his speech. Among the many ego strokes was the moment he said:
"... if I have one insight into human beings, it is that genius, talent, enthusiasm and imagination are evenly distributed throughout the population."
Remember, feeling significant is a basic human desire and a critical factor for mental, emotional, and physical well-being in life, school and work. so by citing the collective talents of the UK populous, Mr Johnson fulfils our most basic human need by proxy. But, does that mean all is forgiven and forgotten? No, not at all, but in truth, reputation management isn't about erasing history, it's about managing perceptions, feelings and emotions.
Finally, here's where the speech failed:
In fairness, Mr Johnson's speech scores highly for its intimacy. By this, I mean at key points, he speaks directly to each individual viewer via the use of the word "you"; a classic rapport-building technique. Surprisingly, however, not once in the six-minute address did he deploy the age-old political prop that is "we" — a highly dexterous word when seeking to engender togetherness or build bridges. During Brexit and the pandemic, for example, Mr Johnson deployed "we" with staggering frequency, so why not here? Honestly, I don't know, it was remiss of his speech writer to not pepper the speech with "we", in my opinion. it would have done more good than harm for him to perhaps suggest that, "... as a proud Great Britain, we must continue forward with the same resilience, resolve and fortitude that positions us as one of the most prosperous and dynamic countries in the world".
In crisis management, the use of "we" and "us" mustn't be underestimated, because as Psychologist Rick Hanson attests, ".. as you see the deep ways we're like each other, a wary tension in the body eases - then you see others more clearly, and can be more effective with them, even those you oppose fiercely."
Ultimately, when building rapport, "you" is good but "we" is almost always better.
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