The Incredulity Test for Public Relations Statements
Some ramblings about public relations statements and recent UK political events.
Imagine the scene. You’ve done something wrong, or at least something that might be perceived as wrong; worse still, it looks like that wrongdoing might be about to get out into the public domain.
What do you do?
That’s right, you or your public relations consultants come up with a clever explanation.
The problem is, sometimes these explanations have a habit of making things look much worse, so here is some unsolicited advice for any public relations experts out there.
Recent political events in Britain are an absolute masterclass in how not to go about the art of public relations politics, but the principles here apply pretty much everywhere both in political and private life.
Before we go any further, obviously the best thing you can do is avoid anything that has the slightest whiff of wrongdoing about it, but perceptions are tricky. One man’s Christmas party might be another’s gathering of friends and this, in turn might be another’s business meeting. So, we’ll assume that you need to put out a public statement for all the right reasons; here’s the thing that the UK government got wrong this week.
They failed to pass the “Incredulity Test”.
If you are in a position where you need to issue a statement you need to make sure that it fundamentally passes this test. Or in other words, will they buy your explanation, or will they spit their Earl Grey tea across the living room?
Time and time again, we see the situation the public relations statement put out by a politician or organisation simply doesn’t pass that test, and this is important, if your version is unbelievable, you will be thought to be a liar and will probably found out to be a liar overtime. Nothing prompts people to dig into a situation more than the feeling that there is unfinished business lying behind an explanation.
Let’s take a look at three examples. I’m working from memory here and these are my perceptions of whether the statements given out in the examples pass the incredulity test.
The three examples I’m going to look at are all political examples within the UK. First, I’ll look at Dominic Cummings’ flight of fancy when he decided to drive to Barnard Castle during the first UK Covid lockdown in 2020. Then we’ll come up to date and will look at the government’s denials that a Christmas party took place in 10 Downing Street (that’s Boris Johnson’s residence and office) when London was in a Tier 3 Lockdown. Finally, we will look at the London Metropolitan Police Force’s refusal to investigate the party at 10 Downing St due to lack of evidence.
Firstly, Barnard Castle.
The UK was placed under a Covid lockdown in March 2020; no one was allowed to travel anywhere unless it was essential. One of the government’s senior advisors, a chap by the name of Dominic Cummings, travelled from his house in London to stay with his family in the North of England. Whilst there, he drove to a local beauty spot called Barnard Castle. These two events were both in breach of the lockdown rules.
Eventually Dominic Cummings gave an infamous press conference in a rose garden where he explained that he had driven to the North of England, away from London, due to fears about his family’s safety and had, later, driven to Barnard Castle to “test his eyesight”. His explanation for this was that he was worried about taking a long drive back to London when he thought his eyesight had deteriorated following his Covid infection. He thought that he’d take a little test drive to check that his eyesight was okay; that was his excuse and his public statement.
Now let’s look at that through the “incredulity” lens, as many people, myself included, did once his press conference was over.
Put simply, it failed.
Many people’s immediate reaction was to ask who would consider getting in a car and driving 30–40 miles to test their eyesight? If you’re worried about your eyesight, the last thing you’re going to do is get into a car and drive, especially with your family on board. Many people decided that it beggared belief that you would get into a 1 ½ tonne lump of metal and drive it to a local beauty spot!
Most people wondered why he chose this method to test his eyesight; perhaps the standard driver licencing agency’s test of seeing whether you can read a number plate at 50 metres away would be more appropriate! Whilst we could all appreciate that the opticians were all closed due to covid, there were surely better ways!
Cummings’ statement failed the incredulity test and, as a result, the story became a national joke with comedians cracking jokes left, right and centre. If we take the basic idea of a public relations statement to explain and finish a story off, this failed spectacularly.
The second example concerns allegations that a party was held in 10 Downing St on the evening of 18th December 2020, just a day or so after London had been placed into what were known as Tier 3 COVID measures. These measures constituted an extension of the lockdown measures already in place as the population of London was instructed not to socialise with anyone outside their own family unit to help prevent the spread of the virus. The allegation is that around several 40–50 Downing Street staff were present, not socially distanced, enjoying cheese and enjoying “party games”.
The story broke in the Sunday Mirror newspaper and was immediately denied by the government, who stated that “all rules had been followed at all times”. This failed the incredulity test from the outset as the perception was that 30–40 people could not possibly have gathered without breaking the rules. This, of course, led to further questions and, inevitably, further disclosures.
The next move in the story was that the staff involved had exchanged Secret Santa gifts and that the Secret Santa has been organised on WhatsApp beforehand; this showed that the party had been pre-planned in the knowledge of the change in lockdown rules was known.
The drip, drip, drip of allegations continued as the government refused to deny that there had been a party and tried to stick to the line that the rules had been followed. As the news outlets continued to pursue the story, the government sought a new line to try and end the affair. This time, at Prime Minister’s Questions, the weekly opportunity for the parliamentary opposition to question the Prime Minister on the actions of the government, the Boris Johnson stated that he was incredibly angry about the whole situation and that an inquiry would be held.
Maintaining the position that the Prime Minister was unaware of a party failed the incredulity test again, because the Prime Minister lives in a flat above 10 Downing Street and other senior figures had attended. In fact, whilst this gathering was happening, the Prime Minister was engaged in working on a further announcement that would scupper most people’s chances of having a normal family Christmas!
Once again, the incredulity test failed.
Let’s assume that this was a quiet party and that the flat above is sound-insulated; it’s (just) feasible that he didn’t know there was a party going on. However, once this became a serious reputational problem for the government, it would have taken a lot of willpower not to ask around and see if a party had taken place. For the average person, this just smells like an attempt to cover up wrongdoing!
The final example I want to look at concerns the Metropolitan Police. Once news of the alleged party was published, there was a clamour of demands for a police investigation.
The Met began by saying that they don’t investigate COVID instance retrospectively. This is their policy, but it sparked widespread derision, because the whole process of the investigating crimes tends to take place after the crime has taken place. However, the furore was mainly a misunderstanding about the policy; if they’re called to an illegal event in a lockdown situation they would break it up, but in this case being year later it was unlikely that they would have found anything going on when they arrived, so they don’t.
However, their following statement was more interesting. Justifying why they would not investigate, the police said that they would not investigate due to lack of evidence.
And here we fail the incredulity test again.
We can safely assume that the residence and offices of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will have pretty good security. Access to the street is strictly controlled, we definitely see a police presence at the front door, and we can assume other entrances are covered in a similar way. I think we can also assume that there will be records of who’s gone in and out. We could probably speculate that there will be closed circuit TV in the main entrances.
In fact, this should be the easiest investigation in history!
The claim that “lack of evidence” would prevent a police investigation simply sparks speculation about the reals reasons an investigation wasn’t happening. You have to wonder what was going through the spokesperson’s mind when they thought that this statement would be a good idea.
In these three examples, each of which sparked a reaction from the public and political commentators alike, we can see that coming out with a statement that failed the incredulity test made the situation worse than it would otherwise have been.
So, what can we do?
The simplest way is not to do anything wrong in the first place, but assume that that particular horse has bolted.
The truth, or as close as you can politically manage, is probably your next best option. Let’s say that perhaps there was a party, but it had been pre-booked and someone made a poor decision when deciding to go ahead; that might have worked as an explanation. Similarly, an unscheduled trip to Barnard Castle was probably best handled with an apology and explanation that it was a case of poor judgement when deciding to break the rules. Finally, the Met Police would have been better not claiming lack of evidence when it was obvious there would be an abundance of material!
Of course, some people claim that these statements are just an example of “dead cat” strategy, where you seek to distract attention away from other events, but it’s hard to imagine that these examples have further the careers or objectives of the people and organisations involved.
In the long run, not doing things that look dodgy is the best policy, but not coming up with ridiculous statements may well be the next best!