One of the early lessons I learned working as a public relations practitioner is that you sometimes get asked for a comment on a situation your organisation has no say in or influence over.
And the one thing you never do is say that you have no comment, or that it’s someone else’s responsibility. It might be true, but you never, ever, say it.
We used to have a handful of stock phrases we would work in to releases and statements to show that we understood that there was an issue to be addressed, even though we might not be able directly to implement a remedy. “We are working with bus operators in the area to re-introduce bus services to Ex Village… while getting the best value for Council Tax-payers money”. That kind of thing.
Which makes the Government’s tardy responses to the decision by Trump to introduce a 90-day ban on entry to the US by Muslims from seven countries all the more alarming.
When news of the decision broke, the immediate response could have been “It is up to the United States how they police their borders, but the United Kingdom has no plans to follow suit” or similar. It’s quite possible to say you disagree with a policy without using the word ‘disagree’. And that was the response we got, eventually, after a lot of questioning at a press conference, once the anger was already out there. Not the right way to state your case at all.
When news spread that the ban would also affect people with dual nationality, the correct response would have been “I have asked my officials to speak with their counterparts in the United States to determine the status of dual nationals from the affected countries who are also British citizens”. It shows you understand that some of the British citizens you represent may be adversely affected – even if you’re not sure how yet. And we’ve all been there, right? Let’s face it, even the officials who had to enact the Executive Order were erring on the side of caution.
And again, eventually, that was the response we got – hours after the media had taken control of the story. Too late, you lose.
It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing with the decision – it’s about demonstrating that you understand it might be a cause for concern for your country / citizens / organisation / staff / passengers / whatever, and that you’re taking steps to find out more. A crisis is as much about perception as it is reality: the perception here is of a Government on the back foot, complacent and possibly complicit.
Now maybe I’m doing May a disservice here. Perhaps the Internet wasn’t working in Turkey, so that she couldn’t announce her decision until she arrived back in the UK. But it’s such an obvious position to take – “we don’t know, we’re urgently asking for clarification” – that you wonder if she had any real comms people with her on her travels at all…