It began with a bungled briefing by a Downing Street official that triggered a petrol panic. With fuel strikes looming, motorists were advised to fill up their tanks causing a rush on petrol stations, which quickly ran dry. PM David Cameron tried to smooth things over by reassuring the public and it seemed to be working, that was until Cabinet minister Francis Maude opened his mouth.
In what can best be described as interview panic or sponge-brain phenomenon, he advised people to carry a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can. Maude’s ill-advised, unprepared words were replayed by national media outlets. Headlines like “Petrol: Number 10 fuels panic” and “Number 10: Fill up quick before fuel strike. But don’t, er, panic…” were a PR disaster for a Government already facing a budget backlash over the introduction of the so-called “granny tax”.
If these two episodes weren’t bad enough, hundreds of bakers are now threatening to march on Downing Street in protest over controversial tax changes to take away food – also known as “pasty-gate”. In terms of bad public relations, the humble pasty and the jerry can have become symbols of one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s most difficult weeks in power. Confused and contradictory statements from ministers and a series of leaks about the budget have resulted in a public relations nightmare. The Government’s communications strategy fell apart spectacularly and national papers, normally loyal to the PM, turned on the Tory party accusing them of provoking panic. What’s more, the negative headlines were all the Government’s doing – it was their repeated gaffes which earned them unwanted attention.
So what lessons can we take from this? Be prepared; be proactive (not reactive); and stay in control. Instead of spouting misleading and potentially dangerous advice, the Government should have used the looming fuel strikes to their advantage by standing up to the unions and condemning the strikes (least we forget, Unite is the biggest financial backer of the Labour party). Good public relations are essential for any organisation however big or small. By managing your public relations properly you can mediate bad press and prevent a PR disaster.