Before the Government’s agenda was diverted to the escalating coronavirus crisis, the UK floods were front page news. On Sunday 8 March, incredibly less than three weeks ago, Boris Johnson went to visit the River Severn in Bewdley and was taken to see the flood defences by the Environment Agency. The reception he received, according to several reports, was somewhat hostile. He was heckled and abused for not having been present at the scenes of the floods and other storm-affected parts of the country three weeks earlier. This begs the question should political or, for that matter, business leaders attend scenes of tragic events? Is it important to show sympathy in person and to physically stand shoulder to shoulder with victims? Indeed, does their presence potentially even hinder the work of emergency services?
What we are seeing now, by contrast, is the Prime Minister, flanked by his Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Medical Officer, giving daily briefings on the coronavirus crisis. This has become required viewing for a nation facing uncertain times. The effect is not just to disseminate information but to provide assurance and confidence, with authority. Recent polls show that the Government is handling the crisis well.
Looking back, in a similar vein, Theresa May was criticised for being slow on the scene of the Grenfell Tower disaster or earlier this year the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, who was on holiday in Hawaii as the bushfire crisis worsened. Even the Queen, as documented in Netflix’s series The Crown, is believed to be forever regretful of the fact she was not quicker to be at the scene of the Aberfan landslide in 1966.
Therefore, by general consent, showing support in person and with a degree of urgency is the done thing. However, it can also backfire if not handled delicately. Tony Hayward, the erstwhile chief executive of BP, was infamously filmed by a TV crew near the scene of the Deep Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. He was perhaps courageous in fronting up to the cameras. But his manner came across as arrogant and aloof, in a “I’ve got this” kind of way. His subsequent phrase “I want my life back too” was ill-judged and has become a case study in the rogue’s gallery of car-crash interviews for media training consultants.
It’s a difficult art to be empathetic and genuine. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, is a master of compassion. He doesn’t hide behind deputies or communications directors. Of course he is a self-promoter and knows how to market his brand, but he also knows how to treat his customers – with respect and humility.
The de facto PR advice is for our politicians and CEOs to front up to the media on the back of difficult news and circumstances, but in today’s world where expressions and attitudes are scrutinised by commentators and social media, it’s vital to be genuine, sincere, authoritative and also well-prepared.