There are some lessons for professional communicators from this week’s appalling events in London and other towns and cities in England. The most important one is this: it doesn’t matter how good your communications machine might be, if the policy decisions are wrong, you’re going to end up with difficult headlines. Putting the benefit of hindsight to one side, we now know that the authorities made three big mistakes.
First, the police failed to revise their ‘softly softly’ approach after the first night of trouble in Tottenham. Second, in attempting to balance the need for visible leadership against not being seen to panic, the political class jumped the wrong way and stayed on holiday for a day or two too long. Third, politicians, police authorities and others spectacularly failed to judge the public mood: a combination of fear and anger about the mob and a general consensus that the police needed to go in hard. So for three or four days, the Government, police and others were on the back foot on policy, which fed into a terrible set of headlines for them – across newspapers, broadcasting and social media.
However, by mid-week everybody had ‘caught up’ with the general public’s view about the appropriate policy response. Our political leaders returned home and gave a clear message to the police to get on top of the problem within the outer limits of what is acceptable in a liberal democracy. My sense is that with the right policy in place, Government communicators were able to really assert themselves and grab hold of the narrative: that these were not ‘demonstrators’ but ‘criminals’; that this was not a story about ‘race’ or the behaviour of the underclass, but about a disintegration of order and the inability of certain people to understand the difference between right and wrong; and that now is the time to make people face the consequences of their own actions.
This demonstrates what we know to be the reality of our profession: if policy and communications are properly aligned, you can turn around the story – any story – for the public good. Without that alignment, there’s little we can do to help.