A simple mea culpa on Saturday morning would have safe-guarded Cummings his job, pre-empted any follow-up stories and given him a much needed human connection to suffering families across the nation. Instead, a panicked denial gifted the media the ability to drip feed the story over the weekend (a long empty bank holiday weekend where people had nothing to do except to stare at their phones).
This led to such a crescendo in media and political outrage that the Prime Minister’s right hand man was forced to answer questions live from a bank of leading political journalists who had had 48 hours to dredge up anecdotes, evidence and public opinion.
This confrontational format resulted at times in Cummings resorting to bluster and, whilst he will have convinced many of the family need underlying his thinking, he managed to roll the story out into Tuesday with an eye-popping claim about driving thirty miles to test his vision (whether this is true or not, it was by any measure ill-advised and the result of panic in the war room as the Number 10 communications team struggled to tie up the loose ends).
The unwillingness of people under pressure to say sorry has roots in legal concerns and the belief that, if you admit to wrong-doing, your cards are marked. It also results from believing that you are the victim of the story, and the only victim. This is a mistake which has been made a thousand times and always worsens the situation. An apology can cover a range of wrong-doing, whilst allowing you to connect to your audience and crucially an opportunity to identify with them. Instead, Cummings – inadvertently no doubt – gave the impression that he was imbued with superior thinking over the masses trapped in their homes. This narrative was allowed to flourish in the fever-pit of Twitter until it endangered the man himself, the Prime Minister and, potentially, public health.
The Whitehouse Consultancy is an award-winning issues-led communications agency with decades of experience in public affairs, press and media relations, stakeholder engagement, crisis communications and training. The Whitehouse team are experts in the impact of global crises, providing crisis communications, risk management and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients in the United Kingdom and across the member states of the European Union. Please click here to view our crisis communications service in more detail.